On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a Chicago church led a march to honor the civil rights leader’s legacy and call for an end to the violence that has troubled the city.
Several hundred people gathered Sunday at St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park for its annual Polar Peace March, a demonstration intended to honor King’s memory and further his beliefs by standing against gun violence. The march, which was first held in 2012, raises money for UCAN, a social services organization based in North Lawndale that aims to help young people who have been traumatized in some way, including by gun violence.
In 2017, the Chicago Police Department reported 650 homicides, many of which were on the city’s South and West sides. Last year’s homicides were down from 2016, when the city saw 771 deaths, but still much higher than the city has seen in more than a decade.
“We wanted to be a vibrant witness for peace in the city, but also bear witness to the fact that young people who are dying in Chicago by the scourge of gun violence … are our sisters and brothers,” the Rev. Matt Fitzgerald said. “And we owe a debt to all of the city. It is our responsibility to say what’s happening is wrong and to confess that, here, in this affluent church in a largely white neighborhood shouldn’t insulate us from that.”
With temperatures in the teens, participants grabbed gloves and hand-warmers as they took to the streets Sunday. The marchers carried signs that read, “Start the Love” and shouted in unison, “I don’t know what you’ve been told! Stop the violence! Let it go!”
Among the crowd was Kimberly Carter, 47, of Lincoln Park, who smiled as she watched her children, Reese, 12, and Will, 11, lead the march with other children who were carrying the protest’s banner.
“This is the first year I brought my kids, and they’re loving it,” said Carter, a member of St. Pauls. “I hope they take away that they have a role in increasing awareness and raising money for preventing violence in the city of Chicago.
“We all want the same thing,” she added. “We all want peace. We have a lot more to do to have more peace and less violence. We’re not where we need to be.”
St. Pauls founded Uhlich Children’s Home as an organization to help orphans from the Civil War. But over the years it evolved into what is now UCAN, a group that tries to support at-risk young people who have experienced violence in their communities or in their homes.
Patrick Daniels, a UCAN youth development coach, assists young people with schoolwork, job training and housing. Coaches, like Daniels, also introduce them to places outside of their neighborhoods.
In the same way that King traveled to India to learn about nonviolent approaches there, Daniels said, he was able to recently send a young man on a two-week trip to India as a part of a cross-cultural exchange program to brainstorm ideas on how to nurture peace in communities.
“For me, Martin Luther King Day is about being able to unite around the world,” he said. “In our case, we’re uniting in our community, showing love and assisting. If everyone did that, we could have an impact. It’s always exciting to see people regardless of what community we’re in. All people are impacted by violence.”
Monday marks King’s birthday. He’s considered one of the most prolific civil rights leaders, leaving a legacy of organizing nonviolent protests during times of segregation and discrimination. He led the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., participated in the 1963 March on Washington where he delivered his poignant “I Have a Dream” speech and organized demonstrations against segregated housing in Chicago.
On April 4, it will be 50 years since King was assassinated while giving a speech outside a motel in Memphis, Tenn.
In the half-century since King’s death, Fitzgerald said, there is a combination of pride in the civil rights movement juxtaposed against unrest from threats in Chicago and across the globe.
“Dr. King’s work is far from complete in a city that saw 3,500 or more shot last year. It’s far from complete in a nation that imprisons African-Americans at a rate five times more than white people. Dr. King’s work is far from complete in a world standing on the precipice of nuclear war. It’s incumbent for us to all stand up for peace right now.”
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