April 4, a day in History for Civil Rights

April 4, a day in History for Civil Rights
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, photo from the National Archives. Mayor-Elect of Kankakee, IL, Chasity Wells-Armstrong, photo courtesy of Chasity for Mayor

Exactly 49 years after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. there was a civil rights victory in my hometown.  Dr. King’s work helped pave the way.   The work of this amazing man lives on nearly half a century after he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

His great voice was silenced, but the movement he created was so vast that it moves on to this very day.

Chasity Wells-Armstrong is a young Woman of Color.  She’s well educated, holding a Master’s Degree in Social Work, and has an award-winning career.  She is also the Mayor-Elect of Kankakee, Illinois.

I grew up in Kankakee.  My family was part of the White power structure that had the City in its grasp until last Tuesday.  Kankakee was never progressive on race relations, but that is changing as the outcome of the election shows.

The Kankakee I grew up in could just as easily been in the Antebellum South.  The dreaded “N” word was heard frequently.  When an African-American bought a home on the West Side of town in the late 60s, there was a barrage of unkind things said about the family.

I sat at dinner with my parents when that happened.  The topic came up for discussion and my Mom said to me be sure to never hate anyone for the color of their skin.  God made us all and He loves us all.

That lesson was taught in my home.  It wasn’t taught in a lot of homes in my hometown in those days. In the late 60s, you could feel the racial tension in the air.  That was common in America in those days.  Society was changing and the White power structure didn’t like it much.

I heard some of my contemporaries talk about what will happen when “they” cross Court Street?  Court Street is the main East/West thoroughfare in town.  “They,” meaning African-Americans; for some reason, Court Street was an arbitrary barrier, a sort of demilitarized zone that was a no man’s land.  Blacks could have the Northside but don’t cross Court Street to the South.

Things change, and Kankakee could not fight changes.  Kankakee lost jobs in the great de-industrialization of the American Midwest.  Where other places near Chicago recovered, or are recovering, Kankakee stagnated.

Property values dropped or remained mostly unchanged.  When Cabrini Green closed in Chicago, many people made the short drive from Chicago to Kankakee to find a haven away from crime.

Crime has a way of flowing into poor areas.  With no hope of having a good life, why not steal, why not deal drugs?  With many families working two or three jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over heads, there is no time to give kids the attention they need.  The gangs know this and they exploit poor families.

The White leadership of the City failed to turn things around.  Along came Chasity Wells-Armstrong, and her election is the extension of Dr. King’s work. Chasity offered ideas and solutions to voters and they responded.  There is new hope in the City.

I remember that awful day in April of 1968 when the bullet found its mark and ended Dr. King.  I was a senior in High School and I remember it as though it happened yesterday.  If you told me then that Kankakee, Illinois would have a female African-American Mayor in my lifetime, I would have thought you were nuts.

There is still a lot of work to be done in my hometown on race relations, and rebuilding the community.  However, Chasity’s election wasn’t a case of African-Americans going to the polls and Whites staying home.   Her support was broad-based.

Dr. King said, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  Dr. King, I hope you were looking down at Kankakee, Illinois on April 4, 2017, because the voters of Kankakee honored your memory by doing just that.

I’m proud of my hometown.  I’m proud of its citizens and how they have changed in my lifetime.  They’re good people.

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