BRONZEVILLE — The 50th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington was recognized Wednesday by Gov. Pat Quinn and a host of other elected officials, clergy and community activists at a South Side church.
Quinn and a group of 20 others gathered at the Quinn Chapel AME Church, 2401 S. Wabash Ave., as a bell was rung at 2 p.m. at the church while others chimed across the country.
The governor noted King's Chicago history.
"Dr. King lived in Chicago in 1966 and loved listening to his favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jackson," Quinn said. "A lot of the marches King led in Chicago dealt with housing. He was a man of his word and always frowned at poor living conditions provided to blacks and that fueled his energy to fight for fair housing."
More than 200,000 people who attended the 1963 March on Washington. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago), a former Black Panther, said that the immensity of the crowd helped pave the way for blacks to receive equal treatment under the law.
“Less than one year after the March, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most sweeping civil rights bill since Reconstruction, into law," Rush said. "Then, a year later, on August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans, into law.”
Those who worked closely with King described him as a peaceful man willing to sacrifice anything to achieve equality for all.
Spencer Leak Sr., president of Leak and Sons Funeral Home in Grand Crossing, was a chauffeur for the civil rights leader when the came to Chicago.
"Back in 1957 white limousine companies would not chauffeur blacks so organizers reached out to black funeral homes since we used limousines as part of our business," recalled Leak, 76. "I begged my dad to let me drive him around and he said yes. So I would pick Dr. King up from the airport and drive him to rallies, dinner and any place he wanted to go."
According to Leak, King had a good sense of humor but would always get back into "crusader mood" once he arrived at a rally.
"Dr. King would joke about my driving saying I was going too fast. The last conversation I had with him was in 1964. I picked him up from the airport and took him to a rally at Soldier Field," added Leak. "He was excited to see so many people had showed up for the rally and told me to take his shoes to get shined, which I routinely did when he was in town."
One thing that upsets Leak the most about blacks is what he described as a lack of appreciation.
"Here we have Negroes able to vote yet they choose not to even though Dr. King and others gave their life for this right," added Leak.
In 1968 King was shot dead while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis as he prepared to lead a protest on behalf of striking sanitation workers. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, was with King on the balcony when he was shot.
"I got up and called Mrs. King and said, 'Dr. King has been shot, I think in the shoulder.' And I said, 'But you should get here quickly.' I guess within five minutes, she had found out through the media that he had really been killed. It was a very traumatic moment," Jackson recalled.
Non-violence was the centerpiece of King's message to blacks. But it was a message Secretary of State Jesse White said was hard for him to follow.
"I first met Dr. King in 1954 when I was a student at Alabama State University and a member of a local church down there. He was in town to organize a rally against public transportation. Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, which was illegal back then," said White, 79.
It would be three years later before White and King met again.
"The last time I saw him was in 1957 when he was getting ready for a rally [in Alabama.] He told a group of us to refrain from using violence," added White. "Then I said, 'Well, Dr. King I am from Chicago and that's not how we do things in Chicago.' That's when he told me to follow the script and everything would fine."
Timuel Black, a historian, recently attended a youth conference in Washington, D.C. geared toward teaching college students about the civil rights movement.
"You know I am getting too old for this, and so are a lot of other civil rights leaders," Black said. "It's time for us old fellas to step aside and let the young folks carry the torch the rest of the way."
And despite the achievements by blacks, other black leaders said King would not be happy with what is going on in Chicago.
"So many in our community have so far yet to go. Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King marched for jobs, housing and education," said City Treasurer Stephanie Neely. "Today he would be on the streets in Englewood demanding the very same things."
And Chicago Urban League President and CEO Andrea Zopp said the struggle must go on.
"We pause to honor the men and women who organized the March on Washington in 1963 and, as beneficiaries of their legacies, [we must] continue to fight for equality, opportunity and justice for all who are disenfranchised and underserved.”