A crowd of at least 100 people gathered Sat. July 18 outside of the Westside Health Authority’s (WHA’s) Austin Wellness Center, 4800 W. Chicago Avenue, for a statue unveiling. The unveiling marked the first anniversary of state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford’s (8th) successful effort to rename a portion of Cicero Avenue — from Roosevelt Road to West Grand Avenue — Mandela Road. 

The statue, however, isn’t a bust of the late South African civil rights pioneer and president. It’s a depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr., which may, from afar, seem somewhat incongruent with a tribute to Mandela. 

Peer closer and the 9-foot bronze statue makes more sense. King is depicted as a Benin priest, or an African chieftain (depending on the interpretation). He holds a Coptic cross in one hand and what could be a Tibetan prayer wheel in the other. A dove, the symbol of peace, is perched on his head. The Nobel Peace medal is affixed to his neck. 

For all of its weight of glory, the statue — created by the prominent African American sculptress Geraldine McCullough — could’ve ended up in the garbage, according to Rickie Brown, executive director of the West Side Historical Society.

“The statue was brought into the community on April 4, 1970 to bring peace back to the community,” Brown said at last Saturday’s unveiling. “It was at the Martin Luther King apartments on Madison and Kedzie [in East Garfield Park]. They didn’t take care of it. The base had corroded and the statue was about to fall.” 

In 2012, Brown began mobilizing community leaders and politicians to try to save the statue. He said he urged people like U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th) and state Rep. Ford to write letters of support that would ease his acquisition of the work. Brown said after three years of struggle he secured the statue and the Westside Health Authority agreed to display the work outside of its facility. 

“This center was built after people came together to sell catfish dinners in order to raise money to build it,” said Jacqueline Reed, WHA’s founder. “The statue symbolizes a struggle of what we can build when we come together. When we look at the lives of Mandela and King, we know they struggled. King went to jail in Alabama and was threatened with murder. These men lost their families. King died early. But their dreams still became realities.”

Reed said the center, which was completed in 2004, cost about $2.4 million to construct. More than 80 percent of the workers who built the facility were black, she said.

“That’s important, because so many times we don’t see what we have done ourselves. We see what everybody else has done and think we’re victims. We think we need, need, need; but we can build, build, build. That’s what this is all about.” 

Markell Mooney, a member of the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons, said he hopes the statue piques the curiosity of area young people.

“We hope this makes kids get curious about who Nelson Mandela was and about his significance as it relates to community building, strength and courage,” he said. “We, as brothers, want to have a relationship with this community through Nelson Mandela’s spirit. We want everything about his spirit to live through us.”

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