by Storyteller Susan O’Halloran
For a print friendly version, click here: Dr-King-Came-to-Town
It was Friday, August 12th, 1966 and Dr. Martin Luther King was marching through my Southwest Side Chicago neighborhood, having an Open Housing March. Now he was marching down 79th Street, that was four blocks from my home on 84th Street. But still, all the lights were out in my house, the windows, the doors were locked, all the draperies were closed. And it was hot. August Dog Days hot in that tiny little living room. And I tried to peek around the curtain, take a look. But my grandmother was like, “Su-san, don’t look! Don’t look!” I said, “Ma, the marchers are four blocks away. It is not going to hurt.”
She was like, “Su-san, the priest said so. The priest said, ‘Don’t go out till the marchers are gone.’ ”
I, kind of, rolled my eyes and seeing that this was having no effect, the priest, she tried the politicians. “You know, Mr. Burke said too. Mr. Burke said, “No going out.’ ” Now, Mr. Burke was our precinct captain and he had gone house to house as he had been told to do by the Democratic Party, telling all of us to stay inside during that Open Housing March. And my grandparents had said, of course, they’ll keep us kids inside and they went back up to their sitting room. And I noticed Mr. Burke came in and whispered something to my dad.
And my dad started to walk out with them and I was like, “What’s happening?” And he, my dad, came back in and said how Mr. Bourke’s rounding up some of the men. There’s some new construction over on 79th Street. There’s some bricks they’re going to put a tarp over or remove the brick so nobody throws them at the marchers tomorrow. “That’s all we need,” my dad said. “People throwing bricks at the marchers tomorrow. But don’t say anything to your grandma. Don’t scare your grandparents.” Well, he didn’t say anything about scaring me. And I was scared.
That summer, earlier in 1966, there had been race riots all over the country. I mean people had been killed in these riots. Those days I go to sleep with racial conflicts from the 10 O’clock News meshing with my dreams and I wake up expecting to see that the sidewalks have buckled. I mean, really part of me expected the whole city to blow. But with my grandparents, I was total calmness. I said, “Ma, it is hot in here. I’m just going to step out, sit on the front porch, get some fresh air. It’s not healthy in here. I’ll be right back.”
“No,” she said. And my grandparents were sitting at the dining room table, which was only a few steps away from our little living room. And she started moaning, “Oh, what do the coloreds want? What do they want?” My grandfather knew the answer.
He said, “First they want our jobs. Now they want our houses.”
Well, I had had enough. I started to walk to the door. She called again, “No, the priests, the politicians, they say don’t go out!”
I go, “Ma, I’m just going to sit on the porch.”
She goes, “What do they want? What do they want?”
My grandpa said, “They want everything.” I had had enough. I walked out the front door.
And as I did, I felt this kind of strange mixture of shame and triumph. Shame because right then I just hated my grandparents. I was so embarrassed by their prejudice. But I also felt this triumph because I’d done it. I mean, Dr. King’s people were marching down our streets and I’d… marched out my front door. At 16, it was the best I could do.
When I sat down on the porch, I was so surprised to see that the block was empty. There was this eerie silence. I mean, usually on a hot summer day, these front porches would be packed with people because we had no air conditioning back then. People would just be sitting there like drooping flags, begging for a breeze. It’s like a neutron bomb had gone off. Only the buildings remained.
And I sat there… and I could remember the last few Sundays there had been Open Housing Marches at Marquette Park. I remember seeing the TV cameras showing this teenager with a, with a, a band on his arm that said, “Death before dishonor.” And this boy picked up a heavy metal sewer cap. Picked it up and tossed it at the marchers like it was a frisbee. And then his friend picked up a rock and he pitched it into the crowd. And it, it swerved through the air and then it sliced right across the forehead of a nun…a nun! And then the cameras showed us some of the streets alongside Market Park where the demonstration was happening. And there were some demonstrators, the marchers, cars were set on fire. And then these lagoons that were in Market Park, it showed pictures of groups of white men pressing their bodies up against the marchers, car… just… just pressing into the steel hulks of their cars. Grunting and pushing them right into the lagoons, the tails of the car waving as they sank.
And then it cut over the pictures of the marchers themselves. They were walking shoulder to shoulder to crisscross style. Martin Luther King was in the middle of them. And there were all these people around them. Like this white people screaming, like making this thin crevice of hate they just had to march through. All the time, shouting, “Coloreds go home! Go back to where you came from! Go to your own kind! Go home!”
But on my street, it was silence like at Mass, at the consecration, where everything got still and quiet. That’s what it felt like but it didn’t feel very holy. It’s like I couldn’t even sit still. So I looked at the bay window to see if my grandma was looking out at me and she wasn’t. The curtains were still drawn. So I got up and walked to Ashburn Park, just three doors down from my house, a lot smaller than Market Park. There was this black and white striped guardrail to keep people from driving into the park. And I just sat there for a moment. It’s like I couldn’t even sit at my house. I didn’t know what to do with my nervous energy. And as I sat there, I suddenly felt this this wave of something like this, this hum of something in the air. And I looked up and there’s this massive swamp… green helicopters. It was the army. The army was in my neighborhood. And then they flew over by 79th Street. And I kept straining to see if I could hear something from 79th Street but I couldn’t. And I wondered were my neighbors like the, the demonstrators at Market Park, the white people there? Were they shouting obscenities, throwing rocks? Had people found those bricks that Mr. Burke and my dad tried to hide? Was there violence going on? I couldn’t tell. Or were they just behind their locked doors like the priest and the politicians had said, just wishing it would all go away? I don’t know where anybody was.
And then, down the middle of my street, came this gray metallic truck. And on top of the truck was a flag and I closed my eyes to make it go away. But when I opened my eyes, there it was again. Red flag, white circle in the middle, black swastika in the middle. A Nazi flag. And next to the flag was a loud speaker that was blaring out this voice saying, “White power rally! White power rally! White power rally! Next Sunday! Noon! Market Park! Next Sunday! Noon.”
I mean, was this very clipped, fact-giving voice as if all of the persuading had already been done. And as that truck came towards me, it stopped right in front of me. And this man in black leather pants and jacket and what looked like slicked back black leather hair, came running at me. And I could see on one lapel, he had this, We Want Wallace button, on the other side it said Up With the KKK. And he handed me this leaflet. And I looked down and there were these people in white robes. The Ku Klux Klan. And when I looked up again the man was gone. And then off their truck went again, fact-giving voice just assuming people would want the information.
As I sat there it was like again, my, my block, was still and empty. It was as if the air were thin. It was as if the KKK and the army and the marchers had all come into neighborhoods and stole all the air molecules. I couldn’t breathe.
And I thought about my church. I mean, my church said to love everybody. I thought about the Dr. King poster I had up on my bedroom wall. I thought about my friends of color that I had just met that year in this youth group that met in downtown Chicago. I thought about how much I would love them to live by me. And I said to myself so I would know myself, “I want black people to live wherever they want to. I want everybody to be free.” But deep inside, I felt of two minds because I’d never seen one example of where black people moving in didn’t mean white people moving out. If open housing worked, I mean, black people could live in my neighborhood but I knew that all the people in my neighborhood would be gone. It wouldn’t be my neighborhood anymore.
And I sat there and I, I looked at that Nazi truck now. It was on the other side of the park and I saw it weaving up and down my neighborhood. And I thought, as I sat on that black and white guardrail, that I felt absolutely torn in two. It was like the city’s dividing line, that white neighborhood, the black line, color line, we crossed every month or so in Chicago; now it felt like it was in my body, cutting my body in two. That’s what I felt. Torn in two.