Though the weather was gelid and the commute was arduous, Bridget Harris was determined to march in the “Reclaim MLK Day” rally in the West Loop area of Chicago.  

The Austin community resident and mother of one says she was inspired to attend because of her concerns over an “unfair juvenile justice system” that she believes write troubled children off at a young age.   

“One juvenile conviction on their record can hinder their ability to be admitted in certain schools and apply for jobs which limits their career options and continues a cycle of incarceration and poverty,” said Harris. 

“The system has to be changed.”

The plight of youth has always been an issue of great importance for Harris who, working with It Takes a Village Child Care Center in Humboldt Park, has seen the impact that the juvenile system can have in shaping a child’s future.

“We want to have a system that fosters rehabilitation, not just punishment for our youth,” said Harris. 

Harris joined over 200 other marchers for the event which was held on Jan. 15, Dr. King’s birthday.

It was coordinated by a coalition of community organizations, including the Black Youth Project 100, Village Leadership Academy and Youth of Color.

The rally and march aimed to both highlight the more radical elements of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and shine a light on social injustices still plaguing the black community nearly 50 years after King led a march for voting rights.

The march, which began at the Village Leadership Academy at 1001 W. Roosevelt and ended with a rally at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center at 1100 S. Hamilton Ave., was the result of a meeting between community activists following the grand jury decision not to indict police officers involved with Eric Garner’s death.

“There were marches that were held following the verdict but none that we felt captured the anger and frustration felt by many youths of color who are impacted every day by a system that is inherently unequal,” said Page May, organizer for the activist We Charge Genocide. 

“We saw [Dr. King’s birthday] as an opportunity to express our dismay with the criminal justice system, as well as a chance to enlighten people about the true legacy of King which is not always taught to our students.”

May says that schools are guilty of only focusing on certain aspects of the King biography–his nonviolent stance, his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, his ability to build a coalition of support in the South–while others have traditionally been ignored.

“King was very successful in helping to create the change that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,” said May. 

“But he could not have done it without his strong, largely female, support in the South, contributing to the cause as well. Women like Ella Baker, Diane Nash and Fanny Lou Hamer were pivotal in making the movement a success.”

May also pointed to King’s general unpopularity at the time due in large part to his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War.

“‘Beyond Vietnam’ is my favorite King speech because it showed the more radical side of his history,” she said.

That speech, delivered in 1967, was so controversial at the time that many civil rights leaders condemned it because they believed it hurt their cause. The speech also inspired President Lyndon Johnson to rescind King’s invitation to the White House.

“This event seeks to continue the discussion and organizing focused on police brutality and reclaim the radical politics of Dr. King,” said Todd St. Hill, organizer for the Black Youth Project 100. 

“We’re hoping that we can inspire people to continue to organize until there is fairness and accountability in the criminal justice system,” St. Hill said. “Dr. King’s movement shows what can be accomplished when people are united and steadfast in the pursuit of change.”