On April 4, 2018, fifty years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., countless commemorative events took place throughout the country and the world, remembering the great man and the work he dedicated his life to. In Chicago, Professor Timuel D. Black sat with Bart Schultz (executive director of the Civic Knowledge Project) at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago to discuss Dr. King's legacy, his time in Chicago, and how they became friends.
Timuel Black is an acclaimed educator, civil rights activist, and historian. At age 99, he is known as “the living memory of the South Side” and a griot of Black Chicago. Mr. Black was born in Birmingham, AL in 1918. When he was just an infant his family migrated to Chicago, escaping the terrors of Jim Crow segregation and the Ku Klux Klan in the south. During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans made the journey north in search of better resources, jobs and educational opportunities for themselves and their children. Most of those who made their way to Chicago settled on the South Side in an area known as the "Black Belt."
Coming of age on Chicago's South Side, Black understood that life for African Americans in the north was not ideal either; as an adult he dedicated himself to fighting labor and housing discrimination in Chicago, which was known as one of the nation’s most segregated northern cities.
"Dr. King exemplified and articulated the feeling of being tired of inequality."
In the summer of 1966, Black helped organize the Chicago Freedom Movement’s now infamous march against housing discrimination in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood. The protestors, community and religious leaders were met with hostility and violence unlike anything they had previously experienced, even in the deep south. During the march Dr. King was struck in the head with a brick and would later say, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”
Black told the audience of his ongoing fear for Dr. King's safety, questioning how long his attitude of passive non-violence would be tolerated in America's social system. By 1960s, there was a great deal of dissent within the African American community on which approach should be taken in the flight for civil rights—some taking Dr. King’s attitude of non-violent, others aligning with the Black Power Movement, in the legacy of Malcom X's "by any means neccessary" approach. Black's father, Timuel Black, Sr. was himself a Garvieyite and Black Nationalist, fundamentally disagreeing with Dr. King’s stance as a passivist.
Black stated that Dr. King's murder may have been attributed to not only his fight for civil rights, but his public opposition to the Vietnam War. Many, including some in his immediate circle, disagreed with his decision to speak out against the war, although a disproportinate number of African Americans and the poor where being sent to fight and die in Vietnam.
Professor Black, who fought in World War II expressed personal concern for the increasing interest of many nations to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He also asserted that those advocating for gun control legislation and the protesters of March for Our Lives are carrying on the legacies of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi before him. He believes that the overall diversity of these advocates will positively impact their ability to create lasting change.
Professor Black's autobiography, Sacred Ground is currently in print with Northwestern Univeristy Press and will be release prior to his 100th birthday this December.