Like most Americans, I am thrilled about the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. I have been reading eagerly about its design, its landscaping, its emotional and cultural impact. As I look at the official website, though, I find myself disappointed that the Chicago Freedom Movement isn't mentioned in the timeline of Dr. King's life.
In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago -- his only northern civil rights campaign -- to help spearhead the movement to end slums and create fair and open housing. The campaign was widely regarded as a failure -- Dr. King was hit in the head with a rock during one of the increasingly volatile marches through white neighborhoods, and the summit agreement he made with Mayor Daley never bore real fruit. Still, the Chicago Freedom Movement was an important one, one I believe ultimately led to the Fair Housing Act.
My novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns, is set during the Chicago Freedom Movement. Twelve-year-old Mina, who thinks her family is the Lincoln family reincarnated, and her father, Al, a well-meaning but often misguided new activist, get deeply involved in the Movement, with consequences for their entire family and community. It was amazing for me to learn about the social justice history of my hometown as I wrote the book -- I had never even heard about the Chicago Freedom Movement until I did a Google search on "Chicago" and "civil rights," fishing for a period that would have some resonance with issues Lincoln faced in his own time. It saddens me that more people aren't aware about King's sojourn in Chicago, and its legacy.
I like to think my characters would visit the dedication of the Memorial. Mina would be in her 50s now; her dad would be in his 80s. The fact that the King Memorial is so close to the Lincoln Memorial would thrill them both to no end. I can just picture them now -- Mina holding on to Al's elbow as they walk slowly through the cherry trees, as they look up at Dr. King in all his sculpted glory. "Hello, old friend," Al would say as tears rush into Mina's eyes.
In stone, as in spirit, Dr. King is a towering presence. Imposing. But I think it's important for us to remember that he was also deeply human. I want to remember him on a small scale as well as a monumental one -- if we can think of him in all his human fragility, it can help us remember that we, too, have the capacity for compassion, for action. Like Dr. King, we can push through frustration and resistance -- as he did with the Chicago Freedom Movement -- and create lasting change. We can each carve our own Stone of Hope within us and use it to shape a better world.
Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of My Life with the Lincolns and Delta Girls. You can find out more about her and her work at www.gaylebrandeis.com and on Red Room, where you can read her blog.