PART 1 of 2
On the last day of Black History Month, NBA legend Isiah Thomas joined the Chicago-based organization CeaseFire to promote peace. His appearance at Fifth City Community Center, 3350 W. Jackson, brought young men from the West and South sides. Thomas is the youngest of nine children and grew up in poverty amid violence on the West Side, but he went on to become an NBA legend and Hall of Famer. He has long been involved in education and anti-crime, anti-poverty programs.

Thomas addressed the packed hall and spoke of his familiarity with the area. “When you walk outside right behind the Laundromat, you’ll see an abandoned, boarded-up building. That is the building I was born in, literally maybe 100 yards from where we stand today.

“Here is my message to all of you and it’s pretty short and simple: It’s very eerie what is happening in this room today, in this neighborhood. My mother Mary Thomas worked for a gentleman by the name of Fred Hampton, on Western Avenue and Madison Street. There was this group that he was part of called the Black Panthers, and they started Operation Breadbasket. They wanted to feed our youth – because in the Bible it teaches us that a man will steal before he starves. The other thing that was happening back in era when I was growing up, you had the Vice Lords, you had the Black Souls, you had the Black Panthers and you had the Latin Kings, and then you had the Disciples and the Gangster Disciples. All of you have codes of honors, words that you live by, and in society, families, they called those values. In the military they died for that code of honor just like some of you have put your life on the line for that code of honor.

“Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. In the era of the ’50s and ’60s you as black men were being discriminated against. And you’re still being discriminated against – through the educational system and through the legal system. If you’re standing in this room today, count yourself lucky because the system has been set up for you to fail. I don’t think it is coincidence that before the age of 22, most young black man are either dead or in jail. You are an endangered species; you need to recognize that to stop killing each other because people are trying to kill you systematically.

“What that era was all about, and I only know the West Side because I wasn’t on the South Side, but I believe most of the gangs started trying to do good work in the community, trying to help your brother, trying to help your brother get ahead. Our culture then was about how educated you can become, because you had to fight to get into the school. There was time where a black man could not go to college. Everything was segregated, separated. Maya Angelou wrote a poem: ‘I am the hope and the dream of the African slave.’ You are the hope and dream of the African slave. Can you feel that? You are everything he hoped to be, everything he fought for.

“At the end of that poem, she said ‘I Rise, I Rise, I Rise,’ so let’s start doing good work in the community again. And let’s start living by values that those gains we’re really all about, before they put drugs in our neighborhoods, before they put guns in our neighborhoods.”