Hello and welcome!
This past Saturday, January 18th, I had the unique opportunity to take a tour called “The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” through the University of Chicago Graham School and the Civic Knowledge Project. The fact that historian, Timuel Black, was leading this tour made it truly special. Mr. Black, born in December of 1918, has carried many titles in his 95 years: historian, teacher, author, activist, and World War II veteran. Hearing Mr. Black talk about his work and time with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.
We boarded our bus at the University of Chicago right near Rockefeller Chapel. King delivered three speeches on this campus, two of which occurred at Rockefeller Chapel on April 13, 1956 and then again on October 25, 1959. 1 On our tour bus Mr. Black spoke about King’s first speech at Rockefeller Chapel in 1956 and how it was originally intended to be at the nearby First Unitarian Church. Black and other organizers soon realized they’d need a bigger venue when they saw the interest King’s presence was garnering and so they moved the event to Rockefeller.
After this discussion our tour bus quickly made its way to the next stop on the tour, Liberty Baptist Church at 49th and King Drive. At the church we were met by Associate Pastor Rev. Damon Smith who shared some of the church’s history with us. Liberty Baptist Church originally began as a social group called the Olive Leaf Club in 1917, but would blossom into a church community. The church’s current building on 49th and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive opened in 1956 under Rev. A.P. Jackson.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his work here in Chicago he focused on inequality, redlining, and poor housing on the city’s Westside, but headquartered at Liberty Baptist Church. “Why headquarter on the Southside when you’re working on the Westside?” Rev. Damon Smith asked us. “Well, it’s good to have friends,” he explained. Dr. King, Jr. had gone to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia at the same time as Rev. A.P. Jackson and the two men had been friends. Rev. A.P. Jackson opened up his church to King, so that Dr. King would have a place to meet, organize, and hold his press conferences. In fact, Dr. King would hold a weekly press conference every Friday and give the media updates on what he and the Chicago Freedom Movement had accomplished towards their goals of eliminating housing discrimination. Progress about organizing tenants’ unions, rallies, or marches would be shared. You can see a picture below of the basement room where Dr. King held his weekly press conferences.
Currently, Liberty Baptist Church is working on updates to its buildings and facilities in order to meet criteria for consideration by the National Register of Historic Places. It also maintains its presence in the community as a source of change and empowerment. According to the church’s website, “Liberty Baptist Church of Chicago along with The Interfaith Housing Development Corporation formed a not-for-profit corporation to assist those impacted with HIV/AIDS. In 1997 Vision House was opened. Vision House provides housing for HIV/AIDS singles and families.” 2
After touring Liberty Baptist Church and appreciating their hospitality, we got back on the tour bus to head to the Westside. Our next stop was the Dr. King Legacy Apartments at 16th and Hamlin. When Dr. King moved into the city in 1966 he chose the North Lawndale neighborhood because it was one of the most racially segregated communities suffering under deplorable conditions. King hoped that his presence would help shine light on those terrible conditions so that they would change. The complex in which Dr. King had lived has long since been torn down, but a non-profit, Lawndale Christian Development Corp., helped create “a 45-unit, green, quality affordable residential and commercial property located at 1550 S. Hamlin, built in 2011, in the exact location where Dr. King resided…” 3 This housing unit is one of the many parts that the LCDC will use to create a 4 acre M.L.K. Historic District. Other elements are the Roots Café, a restaurant that will feature healthy choices for the community, a wellness center and a history exhibit center.
As part of the tour, we were able to get a sneak peek of that exhibit called the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center. The inside featured maps, film clips, and a recreation of Dr. King’s own living room. One of the highlights is a large mural by artist Phil Collins. A crew was putting the finishing touches on the exhibit space getting ready for a VIP opening on January 20th and its official public opening on January 26th. Many photographs were taken as we examined the exhibits and then we made our way back to the bus.
On our way back to Hyde Park we stopped briefly at Marquette Park. In August of 1966 Dr. King led a march through Marquette park and infamously was met by a mob filled with venom and hate. Someone threw a stone and struck Dr. King in the back of the head. After this moment Dr. King leveled a strong indictment saying, “Well, this is a terrible thing. I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I have seen here in Chicago.” 4
I’ve included a YouTube link below which shows this statement. (Be aware, I believe it mislabeled the march site as Gage Park.) The clip is less than ninety seconds long, but you get a strong sense of King’s peacefulness and inner calm when under pressure.
After stopping at Marquette Park to reflect on what King encountered, we then headed back to the University of Chicago. For the entire tour Mr. Timuel Black was sharing anecdotes and stories about the neighborhoods and communities that have changed so much in his long lifetime. At the end of the tour we applauded and thanked him for sharing his wisdom with us. He was kind enough to sign my copy of his second oral history volume, Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s Second Generation of Black Migration too. If you want to learn more about how communities like Bronzeville and North Lawndale grew and developed I highly recommend Mr. Black’s book. We also thanked Professor Bart Schultz from the University of Chicago Graham School for organizing the tour and Larry Dixon from the CLDC for giving us early access to the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center.
Some critics view King’s time in Chicago as one of his less successful endeavors. His work here though, with the Chicago Freedom Movement and other activists, helped lead to the Fair Housing Act. Is there still discrimination, segregation and racism here in Chicago? Yes, but the seeds of Reverend King’s time in Chicago are growing again in the North Lawndale community as organizations work to live up to his legacy.
Thank you for reading!
1 Allen, Susie & Drapa, Michael “When King Made History at UChicago.”
2 Liberty Baptist Church website
3 Lawndale Christian Development Corporation website:
4 YouTube clip: