"He would have been 90 this year," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
Jackson was reflecting on this year's holiday honoring his mentor and friend.
Jan. 15 was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, celebrated nationally on Jan. 21.
As the years go by, there are fewer of those who marched with him to share their memories. But Jackson, one of his closest aides, can still recount milestone moments from King's Chicago Freedom Movement of 1965-66 like it was yesterday.
"Our offices used to be at 366 E. 47th St., in what's now Bronzeville, and we used to meet every Saturday morning at Chicago Theological Seminary," says Jackson, 77, who first met the man of peace at an airport in 1964, when King was en route to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.
Jackson then marched with King in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.
He soon joined the team of the charismatic civil rights leader and was assigned to run Operation Breadbasket, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's anti-poverty effort.
When the Baptist preacher who espoused nonviolence brought the fight for equal rights north to Chicago, Jackson was at his side. Here are significant events involving King in Chicago.
· Chicago churches still standing today were the sites of their strategizing meetings, including Fellowship Baptist Church, 4543 S. Princeton Ave.; New Friendship Baptist Church, 848 W 71st St.; and Stone Temple Baptist Church, 3622 W. Douglas Blvd.
· There was King's June 21, 1964 speech at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights at Soldier Field, days after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Then, after being asked by the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations to come help Black Chicago fight for quality schools, King led a July 26, 1965 march on City Hall; gave a fiery speech before tens of thousands at the July 10, 1966, Freedom Sunday Rally at Soldier Field; and on Aug. 26, 1966, held a globally covered "Summit Agreement" with Mayor Richard J. Daley.
· As part of his "End Slums" campaign, King famously moved his family into a dilapidated, third-floor walk-up at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. in North Lawndale on Jan. 1, 1966, the building is long gone but the Dr. King Legacy Apartments and Fair Housing Exhibit Center now marks the spot.
· King's open housing marches, and the attendant violence from angry residents on the Southwest Side, are most remembered, culminating with the infamous Aug. 5, 1966, march through Marquette Park, where the Baptist preacher was felled to the knee by a rock to the head, lending credence to his famous quote: "I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I've seen here in Chicago."
"When King came to Chicago, we couldn't live west of Ashland, and blacks were hemmed into these ghettos," Jackson says, taking a reporter down memory lane.
Born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga., King was ordained and became assistant pastor at his father's Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1948. He married the beautiful Coretta Scott King in 1953, with whom he had four children.
It was in 1955 that his civil rights efforts began in earnest, when he became president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group that led the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. It ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling segregation on public buses unconstitutional.
King gave his tide-turning "I Have A Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and in 1964 came the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Selma to Montgomery marches, following the infamous "Bloody Sunday" at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, followed in 1965. And King would spend most of the following year in Chicago, marking the expansion of the civil rights battle from the South to northern cities, with key activists Jackson, James Bevel and Al Raby.
King's mark — while combating racial segregation and discrimination in Chicago — extended to suburban and Downstate Illinois, such as his Feb. 10, 1966, speech before thousands at the Fred Young Fieldhouse of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.
Some still debate the success of King's Chicago campaign — Illinois' largest city remains one of the nation's most segregated. But the Chicago Freedom Movement inarguably led to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, signed into law a week after King's assassination.
Jackson, however, says the larger quest at the heart of the revered leader's work in Chicago also is inarguably achieved — empowerment and representation, evident in the diverse political landscape of Illinois, of Chicago and nationwide.
"King's legacy is the Voting Rights Act, which has stood the test of time and resistance," says Jackson.
"Today,” Jackson continued, “Chicago is the urban center with the most U.S. senators of color, Carol Moseley Braun, Roland Burris and Barack Obama; and the home of two African-American men who ran for president, myself and President Obama. In Illinois, we now have an African-American lieutenant governor. So King's legacy stands tall.
"And on this past Nov. 6, his legacy manifested itself in the largest number of women and minorities ever elected in a freshman class of Congress, along with statewide candidates. If you look at Stacey Abrams' candidacy for governor in Georgia, Andrew Gillum's candidacy for governor in Florida, and U.S. Senate races in Texas and Mississippi, a new South is rising," adds Jackson.
"The gap that was once a horizontal gap between black and white is now a vertical gap of disparity between the haves and the have-nots. That, more than anything, is the unfinished business of Dr. King's work."
Maudlyne Ihejirika of the Chicago Sun-Times can be reached at email@example.com.