On Jan. 15, Rev. Jesse Jackson stood inside of the Dr. King Legacy Apartments at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. in North Lawndale and reflected on the legacy of his mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have been 93 on that day.
The civil rights icon, slowed considerably by Parkinson’s and a recent bout with COVID-19, also lamented that the very forces that he and King fought against years ago seem as powerful as ever.
Homelessness is still pervasive. Voting rights are still threatened. Chicago’s West and South sides are still segregated, a key factor driving the pervasive gun violence in those areas. The “violence of our culture,” Jackson said, is still with us.
Jackson said he was working on the West Side with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) around the time King and other activists organized the Chicago Freedom Movement.
The movement began in late 1965, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) merged with West Side activist Al Raby’s Coordinating Council of Community Organization (CCCO).
King chose Chicago as the site of his northern campaign, which was designed to end the slum housing that was typical on the West and South sides. While in Chicago, King and his family lived in a depilated apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin, where the current museum and legacy apartments are situated.
“Dr. King was a West Sider,” said Rev. Ira Acree, the pastor of the Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin. “We say that with pride. Rev. Jackson has challenged us to think about what Dr. King would say today.”
The original apartment where King lived has been razed, but the problem of housing insecurity and poverty remain, Jackson said.
“There are 600,000 Americans homeless today,” he said, echoing data produced by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
In Chicago, Jackson said, “the homeless are in tents along the highway, but more than that they are also sleeping on the viaducts on the trains. There are thousands in Chicago with no place to stay.”
At Monday’s news conference, vestiges of the past also appeared in the form of present activists like Chris Shuttlesworth, the nephew of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Birmingham, Ala., minister who co-founded the SCLC alongside King and was present during the fights to integrate the South in the 1960s.
“I’ve been hearing something in my ear and it is freedom,” said Chris Shuttlesworth, an activist and founder of the Children’s Earth Foundation, a nonprofit “dedicated to improving the quality of life” in urban and rural areas, according to its website.
Brien Cron, the founder and president of Chicago Tiny House, said his organization is attempting to put a dent in homelessness in Chicago by providing tiny houses for the poor.
“The cost of each house is about $25,000 per house, which is unheard of in the housing market,” Cron said.
“That’s why we’re having so much trouble getting this off the ground,” he added. “It’s a new concept in Chicago that’s never been done before. We are working with the Department of Planning and Development. Hopefully, we’ll [start to build them] in the near future.”
Turning to voting rights, Jackson challenged labor unions to go to West Virginia, the state of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, and march in order to pressure the legislator to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which has been stalled in Congress.
Other clergy in attendance on Monday echoed Jackson’s concern about the current state of American democracy.
“Clearly the past has not passed,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch, the pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Garfield Park and the Illinois president of Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
“We’re not [only] here because Dr. King occupied this very space, but we’re here because the struggle is ongoing,” he said. “We’re here back again fighting for the right to vote. That should be fundamental and that was, at one point, a bipartisan agreement — that every citizen has a right to vote.
“And so, in many ways, we’ve gone backwards and that’s why Rev. Jackson continues to challenge us,” Hatch continued. “We can’t stop marching, we can’t stop standing up. We must continue fighting relentlessly.”
Austin pastor calls on youth to mobilize for voting rights
Rev. Ira Acree, the senior pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, hosted a virtual Martin Luther King Day Assembly on Jan. 17, at Providence St. Mel High School, 119 S. Central Park.
During the assembly, the West Side pastor, who participated in the March on Washington for Voting Rights in August 2021, urged young people to mobilize for the right to vote.
“King was not just a dreamer but a man of action,” Acree said. “Young people should not just admire King but honor him by becoming activists in our community.”
More specifically, Acree urged young people to register to vote, to encourage their friends and loved ones to register to vote and to work with their local churches and the faith-based community to mobilize support for voting rights.