About an hour before the Rev. Al Sharpton, MSNBC talk show host and president of the National Action Network, walked up to the pulpit of the New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, 4300 W. Washington Blvd., Regina Johnson was talking to a fellow congregant about the city’s violence.
“It’s just crazy, crazy! It’s never been this crazy,” she told the woman as people moved about the cavernous cathedral space, readying themselves for the day’s service.
On Friday, Sept. 4, at about 11:20 p.m., two men were injured, and Leonard J. Williams-Tate was killed, in a drive-by shooting on the 1600 block of North Mayfield. Johnson’s father lives on that block and Williams-Tate, 31, is the son of a fellow church member.
That news was followed by more too-close-to-home devastation. The day before, Johnson learned that authorities had discovered the dismembered body of a baby in the Garfield Park Lagoon, about a mile away from the church.
“I told my son I’m ready to move back to Memphis,” she said. “If it weren’t for him, I’d have been gone. It’s getting so bad he can’t even go outside without me calling him and making sure he made it to wherever he’s going. It’s never been like this. I was born and raise on the West Side of Chicago, but I don’t want to be here anymore.”
Rev. Marshall Hatch, New Mt. Pilgrim’s pastor, was apparently so moved by the recent spate of violence that he felt compelled to ask Sharpton to stop by his pulpit. Sharpton was in Chicago to eulogize the mother of one of his best friends.
He told the several hundred churchgoers that he hadn’t necessarily planned on speaking to network camera crews about the city’s violence, but when Hatch — who Sharpton considers a longtime friend and who he lauded as a universally respected activist — asked him to stop by, he relented.
In 2013, Sharpton rented an apartment in Garfield Park that is owned by New Mt. Pilgrim’s nonprofit development corporation and lived there on certain days of the week for several months in order to address the city’s gun violence.
Before Sharpton got up to speak, Hatch called his congregation to the church’s altar for a collective prayer.
“Blood is flowing in the streets, the innocent, the volatile are living in fear,” Hatch prayed.
During brief comments, Hatch referenced the more than 60 people shot and 16 killed in the city since September 1, before indicting the city’s deep inequality.
“People are afraid to say how we are suffering in this city,” Hatch said. “I’m particularly burdened by what happens to poor people in cities like Chicago with all these fines and fees and red lights, but yet there’s still no money for schools to pay teachers … We have to invest in the future if we’re going to have a future and the only future we’re going to have in this country is our investment in our children. Until we go in a different direction, there will be mayhem in the streets.”
Sharpton talked for ten minutes into television news mics about the city’s violence before he delivered a much longer sermon that wasn’t picked up by the networks’ cameras.
“It is clear to me that there will not be a one way solution to this. This is going to take all of us at different levels to address this,” Sharpton said of the violence.
“We keep looking for one politician, one leader, one law enforcement … Everybody has a responsibility — from the grassroots to City Hall to the White House and everybody [should] work their part,” he said.
Sharpton said Chicago is “ground zero” for what is a national crisis of gun violence in America’s cities and called for an emergency meeting of black leaders similar to one that was called in 1994 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“When we were in crisis in 1994, there was an emergency meeting of national leaders in the black community that was called at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore for two days and everybody — whether they were Christian or Muslim or Hebrew or Black Nationalists … it did not matter their persuasion. We all got around the table and checked our egos at the door and dealt with the crisis,” Sharpton said.
In June 1994, the NAACP met with a range of national black leaders, including Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan and scholar Cornel West to discuss black economic development, moral renewal and community empowerment.
“Our people are living in their homes afraid for the lives of their children. Our people are under siege in our communities. We are living in fear and we must deal with it,” he said, before suggesting that the 1994-style summit should center on designing an immediate plan of action to address the violence.
According to an article about the conference by the Baltimore Sun, after three days of meetings, “participants emerged with no results to report other than the formation of three working committees and plans for another summit.”
Dr. Benjamin Chavis, the NAACP’s executive director at the time, said that the meeting took place at all was a success in itself.
“Let no naysayer underestimate what we have achieved here,” Dr. Chavis told the Sun. “There is going to be dancing in the streets of black America because we have defied the forces that want to divide us.”
Chicago attorney Lewis Myers, who is a member of New Mt. Pilgrim, was the NAACP’s deputy executive director at the time and helped convene the three-day summit. He recalled counting about 125 national leaders at the conference.
“We wanted to get everybody to start speaking on the same table and with a voice of unity, because at that time there was [division],” Myers said. “Everybody was in the room and that was a miracle in itself.”
Myers hinted that Sharpton has been talking with other black leaders, such as Bishop T.D. Jakes, the famous televangelist and media personality, about a conference to take place in Chicago.
“Hopefully, we can sponsor it through the church and national leadership from across the country can convene here at New Mt. Pilgrim,” Myers said.
In his remarks before the television network mics, Sharpton said, “the place is Chicago and the time is now” for an emergency meeting of the minds. He talked about the upcoming presidential election and the dearth of conversation about the violence. Perhaps, he implied, the black leadership should be driving the national conversation about gun violence and its immediate implications.
“You have people today worrying about what they’re going to do when their children go to school Tuesday. This is a present, eminent danger,” Sharpton said.
“It’s one thing to talk about Donald Trump or Hillary. It’s another when you’ve got kids going across invisible boundary lines to go to school and you got to pray all day that they get to school and get home — and your leaders are not even addressing that.”