Story originally published in 2008 in honor of the 40th anniversary of King’s death
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.”