On August 5, 1966, activists from the Chicago Freedom Movement set off from the New Friendship Baptist Church in Englewood to march three miles through the white neighborhoods of Chicago Lawn and Gage Park to protest the housing segregation that lay at the root of most forms of discrimination in the city — disparities in education, medical care, food access, and so on. To combat these disparities, Chicago activists had joined with Southern civil rights activists to create this Chicago Freedom Movement. Their goal was to highlight that racial injustice existed not just in the deep South, but in Northern cities as well. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined with local Chicago activists such as Al Raby to raise Northern discrimination to national consciousness in the same way they had highlighted Southern bigotry. “If we can break the system in Chicago, it can be broken any place in the country,” King stated.
Over the course of the previous 6 months, these activists had sent real estate testers of various races into real estate offices in white neighborhoods. The Black testers would be told there was nothing available while the white testers would be shown available properties. Through quasi-legal methods such as this, real estate agents and white residents had effectively made certain neighborhoods off-limits to Black people and other people of color, and the activists sought to disrupt that system.
On July 28th, the activists started a more active period of resistance. They engaged in a series of marches through Chicago Lawn and Gage Park to demonstrate their opposition to housing practices in Chicago, and white residents fought back by violent means. On August 5th, the activists wanted to press their case by marching again, in spite of the opposition they were bound to encounter.
On August 5th, the activists marched from Englewood to Marquette Park in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, then on to a real estate office in Gage Park. There are photographs of the marchers on this day that show a few white men and women amongst the largely Black demonstrators, surrounded by a crowd of white people who wanted to maintain the status quo of housing segregation in Chicago through violent action — spitting, throwing rocks, tossing firecrackers, physically attacking protesters when possible, despite the heavy police presence. And I wonder: if I had lived at that time, in that place — in which group of white people would I have been? Those who joined the protesters, or those who fought against them? Or would I have simply stayed home and stayed out of it, telling myself that it was too dangerous or contentious, and that other people would figure it out?
The thing is, we each have our moment in history. I was not present for the Chicago Freedom Movement or the civil rights movement more broadly, but I am right here, right now. I do not need to wonder whether I would have stood up against the racism, xenophobia, and hate in our nation at some point in the past. I have to do it now. And let me be clear — this is not just about Trump and the present political moment. He is a particularly self-centered individual who is particularly willing to be open about his explicit racism. But the need to stand up has not been brought about by his election — it has been here all along.
The crisis of violent white supremacy has been here, and now it is amplified. The crisis at our border has been here all along, and now it is amplified. The crisis of mass incarceration has been here all along, and now it is amplified. My lack of action as a 43-year-old man is my own responsibility. But I can no longer suppress my awareness of these issues and sit idly by while people of color are affected by them on a daily basis. Would I have been at the front line the Chicago Freedom Movement? The question is irrelevant. The relevant question is: am I at the front line now? What am I willing to sacrifice from my comfortable life for the creation of a true multi-racial democracy, one that embraces all of our people and provides the means for all of us to thrive? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t need to know. My life, my choices will answer the question for me.
How will my life answer the question? How will yours? In those photographs of that day 53 years ago, I see not the past, but the present. I see not what people did then, but what we must do now.
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