|Rioters bombard a car during protests against Martin Luther King’s march through Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood on August 6, 1966. Source: weaa.org|
A little departure from the urbanism beat, but very relevant.
There was another march in Marquette Park yesterday. It was to commemorate the events of 50 years ago and to dedicate a new memorial in the neighborhood. There were many people at the march yesterday who were there 50 years ago, and they proudly proclaimed their history-changing role. Former Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman was there, 50 years ago and yesterday. Jesse Jackson was there 50 years ago and yesterday. Former Illinois U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun was there 50 years ago and yesterday.
Then it hit me — the angry mob that greeted them in the park that day is alive and well. They were alive 50 years ago and they were alive yesterday — and today.
The 15-year-old Marquette Park kid who wandered onto the march 50 years ago, and joined in the rock-throwing, is now some 65-year-old recently retired tool and die operator who now lives in Mokena. The 21-year-old college student who tried to mobilize white residents to confront the marchers and block their progress is now a 71-year-old retired attorney in Palos Heights who has long forgotten about his role in the violence. The 27-year-old young mother of two in 1966, who shouted “niggers go home” and “back to Africa” is now some 77-year-old widow who lives alone in a nice, tidy bungalow in Oak Lawn.
You can multiply that by thousands. Why are they allowed to continue to bury their sins in anonymity?
As a society we’ve let them off the hook. There are questions for them that are left unanswered, and it would be really interesting to see how much perspective they gained in the intervening 50 years. What motivated your actions then? How do you feel about your role now? Do you see the correlation between your actions then and the laws and policies that were developed and enhanced to support your position? Do you see the correlation between your actions then and the social and economic position of African Americans in our society today?
As for the Gen Xers and Millennials who say they weren’t around when this happened: your parents and grandparents were. And while you rebel against the system, or more appropriately the system that doesn’t grant the same privilege to you today that it granted to previous generations, remember it’s the people who loved and raised you who had a hand in creating that system. And they imparted values to you that perpetuate the system in ways you’ve yet to imagine.
There are a lot of people who like to believe, deeply want to believe, that racism is some past relic that we shouldn’t bring up anymore because it’s irrelevant. Such overt discrimination is a thing of the long ago past, they say. We changed the laws, they say. We now have equality of opportunity, they say. No one can conduct themselves that way anymore without repercussions, they say.
No. Racism did not end because we passed laws, or people with overt bias are shunned, or even because we elected a black president. It lives with us and continues to be passed on. If we continue to look at the world as then=bad, now=good, we’re always arbitrarily drawing that line where it suits us best. We start to believe that the conditions and practices — and people — that existed in the then=bad days never carried over into the now=good days. And it takes us further from doing the work we need to do today to create a better America.
Racism and the system that perpetuates it still has a beating heart. In Chicago’s case, it might still be beating in the heart of a tool and die operator in Mokena, an attorney in Palos Heights and a widow in Oak Lawn.