Rev. John Crawford served as body guard for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while the civil rights leader was in Chicago during stints in the mid-1960s.

Crawford, who was in his early 30s at the time, along with other area pastors worked closely with King during his time in Chicago and the West Side. King wasn’t only their leader, but a friend, Crawford contends.

In 1966, King briefly moved to Chicago, staying in a run down North Lawndale apartment located at 1550 S. Hamlin – the building has since been demolished – in order to highlight poor living conditions of blacks in the city. Racial tensions in the city, recalled Crawford, who was known at the time as “Big John,” were high even before King got to Chicago.

A second march on Washington

Now in his 70s, Crawford and other West Side pastors were part of the West Side Organization (WSO), a local organization focused on political and economic rights for all of Chicago’s black communities.

A founding member of the WSO, which ceased operations in the 1980s, Crawford contends that had Dr. King not been assassinated on April 4, 1968, American would have witnessed a second “March on Washington.” This one, he insisted, would have been greater than the first historic march from 1963.

“It was to be the next big thing,” said Crawford, a veteran West Side activist and founder of For Action In Together Incorporated (FAITH, INC), an agency that assists formally-incarcerated men, women and youth.

For the proposed second Washington march, the WSO’s goal was to raise funds to send 10 buses of protesters to the rally that was scheduled to take place in the nation’s capital. The focus of the rally was to send people of different backgrounds to protest the Unites States’ treatment of its indigent communities, as well as its position on the Vietnam War. Civil rights protesters were planning to set up tents in Washington DC in what organizers were calling “Resurrection City”.

“And we would have gotten more than 100,000 people to the protest if he (Dr. King) wouldn’t have gotten killed,” said Crawford, the only living member of the WSO’s four founders.

At the time of King’s assassination, Crawford and other local activists were soliciting funds from owners in the business district near Racine Avenue and Roosevelt Road. When they heard that their leader had been assassinated, everyone was shocked.

“It was like the light went out of the world,” Crawford recalled. “I saw grown folk on the street crying – both black and white people.”

King was called away from organizing the second Washington march at the last minute. He was asked to lend his support to southern black sanitation workers who were striking in Memphis over discrimination. The dispute began in early 1968 and lasted into late March. His speech at an April 3 Memphis rally where he told the crowd “I’ve been to the mountain top,” would be his last.

He could touch the heart and soul

At Crawford’s FAITH INC., headquarters in Austin at 5840 W. Chicago Ave., the walls are lined with photos, including one of him with other WSO members posing with King. The 1967 photo was taken before Dr. King was set to give a speech at the Amphitheater on the South Side as part of a music fundraiser headlined by Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte.

“They were calling on him too much,” Crawford said of churches and organizations all across the country that wanting King to make appearances. He recalled how the WSO first came in contact with King.

The civil rights leader first approached the WSO in the mid 1960s. The group at the time was working locally on issues of equal housing and welfare. Blacks were relegated to live in segregated communities, and often had their homes burned or vandalized when they attempted to move into white areas. Black families were also dealing with “de-facto” or substandard educational practices in the Chicago school system.

Nationally, Dr. King was addressing the issue of “open housing,” insisting that a person should be able to live anywhere they could afford to.

At the time, Dr. King called the WSO “the most effective grassroots organization that he had ever seen,” Crawford remembers.

In 1966, the WSO was visited by one of King’s top strategist, Rev. James Bevel, a preacher from the Mississippi area, who came to teach potential protestors the tactics of nonviolence.

“They had to teach people about nonviolence. You couldn’t just get in a march and go crazy. You had to be taught,” Crawford said. “They were teaching us how to respond to violence.”

The WSO founder holds in his possession a short video clip of him and Dr. King entering the Westside Christian Parish, formally located on the West Side. Crawford also admirably points to an illustration on his wall of Dr. King, Mahalia Jackson and John F. Kennedy.

“Dr. King could touch the heart and soul. He made you feel like a human being should make you feel. Dr. King would cuff your hand like this,” said Crawford, reaching across his office desk lined with books and personal journals, “and he would say, ‘How you doing brother? How you doing?'”

King timeline: From Atlanta to the mountain top

1929, Jan. 15 – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born as Michael Luther King in Atlanta. He later changed his name to Martin. Dr. King came from a long line of pastors who served at Ebenezer Baptist Church, including his father and grandfather


– King is ordained to the Baptist ministry


– He graduates with a bachelor of divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Penn.


– Martin and Coretta Scott marry in Marion, Ala.


– King receives a doctoral degree in systematic theology from Boston University


– The couples’s first child, Yolanda, is born Nov. 17. On Dec. 1, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a Montgomery Ala., bus to a white man and is arrested

1955, Dec. 5

– The first day of the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King is named president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

1957, Jan. 27

– An unexploded bomb is discovered on the porch of King’s Montgomery home

1957, Feb.

– The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is founded. On Oct. 23, King’s second child, Martin Luther III, is born

1958, Sept. 17

– Dr. King’s book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, is published.

1960, Jan. 24

– King and his family moves to Atlanta where he becomes co-pastor with his father of Ebenezer Baptist Church

1961, Jan. 30

– Third child Dexter Scott is born.

1962, May 2

– King joins the Birmingham protests

1963, March 28

– Fourth child, Bernice Albertine, is born. Weeks later on April 16, King writes his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

1963, June

– His book, Strength of Love, is published

1963, Aug. 28

– The March on Washington takes place in Washington, DC. The theme was “Jobs and Freedom”

1964, June

– King’s Why We Can’t Wait book is published

1964, Dec. 10

– Dr. King receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

1966, Feb.

– The King family rents an apartment on Chicago’s West side at 1550 S. Hamlin

1967, Jan.

– He writes his book Where Do We Go From Here?

1968, April 3

– King’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” is delivered in Memphis

1968, April 4

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated as he stands on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. The wife of motel owner Walter Lane Bailey died of a brain hemorrhage several hours after King was shot.

-Compiled by Delores McCain