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Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., nationally recognized civil rights icon, is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. A close partner with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight for equal rights, Jackson reflects on how a centuries-long broken promise sparked his involvement in the movement. More than 50 years following the height of the civil rights era, Jackson encourages the next generation to advance the yet unfulfilled journey toward equality.
Renowned historian and civil rights activist Timuel Black has dedicated his more than 100-year life to advancing social justice. Black reflects on his work with civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, and his time organizing the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A front-row witness to history, Black suggests that the civil rights struggle is advanced not solely by physical sacrifice, but also by an “attitude” to create change.
In 1966, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) expanded civil rights activities from the southern United States to the North through the Chicago Freedom Movement. Rev. Clyde Brooks, former Chicago SCLC leader and current chairman of the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations, discusses the civil rights climate in Chicago and Dr. King’s perspective on America’s founding principles.
Political science professor Robert Starks was just a child when Emmett Till’s murder shook the nation. That event, and the lynchings that followed, shaped Starks’ future participation in the civil rights movement. He became a youth leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Chicago, participating in numerous protests throughout the city. Starks recalls a shift in the civil rights dynamic in Chicago, following the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.
In 1983, Harold Washington made history when he was elected mayor of Chicago, becoming the first African-American to hold the city’s top office. Josie Childs, an aide to Mayor Washington, reflects on Washington’s leadership, his impact on the city and the example he provided for leaders who came after him. Washington passed away during his second term as mayor. To keep his memory alive and advance the mayor’s principles of governance and fairness, Childs formed the Harold Washington Legacy Committee.
While in college, James Montgomery’s counselor discouraged him from pursuing a career in law. Dismissing her suggestion that he abandon his passion and instead work in physical education, Montgomery was emboldened by his detractors. He is recognized today as a prominent Chicago civil rights attorney, having represented clients — including the Black Panthers — in landmark civil rights cases.
Civil rights activist the Rev. Amos Brown grew up in the historic African American district of Jackson, Miss. Brown reflects on a lifetime of bearing the burdens of African Americans – including the deaths of Emmett Till and the Rev. George Washington Lee. The impact of those deaths led him to organize the youth council of the NAACP, and later become the President of San Francisco NAACP.
Sandré Swanson, former California State Assembly Member, reflects on pivotal events that sparked his journey to leadership — including the traumatic death of a close college friend and protests against the Kent State shootings. Swanson went on to work alongside former U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, whose mentorship set him on a path to the California State Assembly.
Alvin Attles, retired NBA player and iconic coach of the Golden State Warriors, grew up in a predominantly Jewish high school in New Jersey. Attles recognized the importance of education through support and encouragement from his high school basketball coach, leading him to graduate with a scholarship to North Carolina A&T State University. Motivated by sports legends Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain and Vince Miller, Attles navigated the demands of playing for a professional team, and ultimately became coach of the Golden State Warriors.
Willie Brown grew up in a small Texas town, working as a shoeshine boy. Leaving behind a segregated Texas to attend San Francisco State University, Brown experienced a culture of diversity and acceptance for the first time. After becoming actively involved in the NAACP and the Young Democrats, Brown was urged to run for office. After losing his first election, Brown persevered, and was elected to the California State Assembly in 1964. Brown ultimately became San Francisco’s first black mayor, serving eight years in office.
Logan Hampton, formerly of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, grew up in Parkin, Ark., where tracks divided the white and black parts of town. He recalls, "I can remember sleeping on the floor a few times during my childhood, in the hallway [...] because there would be these race disturbances, and there would be these concerns that persons would be [...] throwing things, Molotov cocktails."
On Jan. 5, 1923, a white vigilante mob in Florida ended a two-day rampage, resulting in the largely black town of Rosewood being burned to the ground. The incident was triggered when a white woman claimed she had been assaulted by a black man. Local white men launched a manhunt and terrorized Rosewood residents in their search. Violence ensued, resulting in deaths and the destruction of the town.
Julieanna Richardson, founder of The History Makers in Chicago, recalls watching the march on television with her family as a young girl, as well as how little was taught of black history in school. She said, "We only studied two things about black people [...] George Washington Carver [...] he had done all these things with peanuts, and we also talked about slaves."
On Oct. 16, 1968, two U.S. athletes used an Olympic medal ceremony to protest racial inequality in America. Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos placed first and third, respectively, in the 200 meter dash at the games in Mexico City. As the national anthem played, rather than hold their hands over their hearts and face the American flag, they bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in a silent protest.
The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, former pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, was on the balcony with Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and tells of those final moments, the aftermath, and the meaning that people drew from the tragic event. He recalled finally hearing about the fate of King, "We never used the word 'death' [...] They never said 'he died' [...] We say, 'we lost him, we lost him.'"
See more of the story in this edition of Moments in Civil Rights History:
The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
See more stories about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the following first-hand accounts:
A Child Learns of Dr. King's Murder
Stax: James Alexander of the Bar Kays
Norma Bradley of Houston was struggling with which direction within the Movement was best for her. She and her brother decided to attend the March on Washington. She said, "I remember telling my brother, 'I hope I can find some peace.'" The March had a lasting effect on Norma, "A lot of the rage started dying down, and the strategies began to take place. And I'm at peace now."