On Aug. 5, 1966, when Martin Luther King Jr. and 700 others marched together through Chicago’s Marquette Park in a call to desegregate the city, they encountered the most hateful crowds King had ever seen.
A half century later, the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) led another march, on Aug. 6 in Chicago, this time to install the city’s first permanent statue of Martin Luther King and to ask the question: How far have we come in 50 years?
The answer is not far enough.
Chicago remains one of the most diverse and segregated cities in the U.S., with a population that is nearly equally divided between Black, white and Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Decades of racially-biased housing policies have resulted in restrictive housing covenants, redlining, predatory contracts and white-flight to the suburbs. In Chicago, 52 percent of the Black population lives in neighborhoods that are more than 90 percent Black and with poverty rates of 40 percent and higher, the Chicago Reader reported.
On top of the traumas of housing segregation and economic marginalization, Black communities have been saddled with severely underfunded and segregated public schools. A UCLA study named Chicago one of the cities with the most dramatic racial segregation in its schools, describing it as “apartheid” conditions. Overall, enrollment at Chicago Public Schools last year was 9 percent white and 91 percent Black or Hispanic, with 56 percent of Black students attending schools that were at least 99 percent Black or Hispanic. Nearly one third of the city’s schools did not have a single white student.
More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools with predominantly white students still receive up to 65 percent more school funding because of a reliance on property taxes. At New Trier High School, for example, the student population is 84 percent white and per pupil spending is $21,372, a study by the Chicago Teachers Union found. In contrast, the average Chicago public school has a population that is 86 percent Black or Hispanic and spends $13,791 per pupil, according to the union report “A Just Chicago.”
Multiply the difference by a thousand students in each school and the result is a $7.6 million annual funding difference. Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which focuses on social justice in Chicago, created a powerful video with students speaking out about this inequity.
The same day IMAN led the march to honor Martin Luther King Jr., Chicago was rocked, yet again, by the release of a video of an unarmed young Black man, Paul O’Neal, shot to death by police. Rather than help the young man, who was shot in the back and dying in his own pool of blood, the video shows Chicago police officers handcuffing him on the ground, while complaining they would be put on desk duty. Paul O’Neal died soon after.
Organizations like IMAN are making a difference in some of the most marginalized and traumatized communities in Chicago.”
Chicago, by many accounts, has a long history of systemic police brutality toward low-income people of color. Few outside of Chicago have ever heard of Jon Burge. But from 1972 to 1991, Burge, a white detective and then a police commander, tortured false confessions out of young Black men on the Chicago’s South Side. At least 120 African-American men were suffocated with plastic bags, electrocuted, burned, beaten, or tortured in other horrific ways to force confessions.
Several victims spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit before being exonerated. The fact that Burge was allowed to operate with such impunity for decades led to the creation of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA). The authority was neither independent nor effective, though, and could not root out systemic racism and abuse in the policing of poor and marginalized communities of color.
During IMAN’s commemorative march, youth around the city were organizing a rally of their own to protest systemic racism and violence in the Chicago police force. Racism, impunity, and a code of silence create deep distrust in communities of color, which often see Chicago police officers as sources of harassment and abuse, rather than protection, a scathing Police Accountability Task Force report found.
In the midst of such distrust and hostility, IMAN and other organizations are rebuilding trust in their communities. IMAN’s executive director, Rami Namashibi, believes one of the reasons Chicago has not erupted in violent protest like other cities, despite long simmering grievances, is the strength of the organizing infrastructure within the city. Organizations such as the Inner City Muslim Action Network, Southwest Organization Project, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Westside Health Authority, Action Now Institute, Communities United, and Enlace Chicago, all work to channel the pain, anger, and frustration of marginalized communities towards positive and organized action. These movement building organizations provide communities with a collective voice loud enough to challenge and reform implicitly biased and destructive policies.
To all the organizations mobilizing and empowering communities for change, thank you. As IMAN’s MLK memorial march reminds us, ‘The journey to justice continues…’
Janelle Choi is a Momentum Fellow hosted by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. She supports grantees in the Midwest region and has written about “Shifting the Balance for Grassroots Funding.” About the top image: On Aug. 6, Chicago residents marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march through the city’s Marquette Park. Photo courtesy of Fredy Peralta (APJ Photography).