Martin Luther King Jr. in Marquette Park on August 5, 1966, before he was hit by debris thrown by the crowd Credit: Larry Nocerino/Sun-Times

For decades, southwest-side Marquette Park was a national symbol of racial bigotry. It’s no longer that today, but neither is it an emblem of togetherness. Marquette Park instead is one of the best examples of the city’s failure to find a path to integration.

“We are bound for the promised land,” Martin Luther King Jr. said during a rally in Chicago on the morning of August 5, 1966—50 years ago this summer. “We will taste the milk of freedom and the honey of equality.”

That afternoon, King stepped out of a car in Marquette Park to lead a march for fair housing. Marquette Park stretches from Marquette Road (6700 South) to 71st Street and from California Avenue to Central Park Avenue. In 1966 the adjoining neighborhood was solidly white—largely Lithuanian, Polish, German, and Italian. Most of the 700 people demonstrating with King that day were black. Instead of the honey of equality, they felt a hail of rocks and bottles tossed over the heads of police by many of the thousands of white hecklers who also gathered that day. “Kill those niggers!” some shouted, while others chanted “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” One of the rocks struck King in the back of his neck and knocked him to one knee. “The people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate,” King said afterward.

The hatred in Marquette Park didn’t soon vanish. Through the mid-1980s, white youths would periodically rally in the park, dressed in white power T-shirts, and sometimes hurling bottles and bricks at cars with black occupants. Small Ku Klux Klan rallies were also occasionally staged in the park through 1986.

In the 1980s, the Marquette Park neighborhood began to change racially. It changed in the customary way: blacks moved in and whites moved out. The area’s Latino and Arab populations also grew. The new residents were generally poorer, and crime in the neighborhood increased with the poverty rate. Because black migration to Chicago from the southern states had greatly slowed by 1980, the pace of racial change in the neighborhood was slower than it had been in many other south-side neighborhoods, but it was inexorable. In 1980, the census tracts near the park were 82 percent white, 11 percent Latino, and 5 percent black; by 2010, they were 6 percent white, 46 percent Latino, and 46 percent black. Most of the Latinos live west of Kedzie (the park’s midline), most of the blacks east of it.

During the neighborhood’s years of racial transition, the park was used fairly equally by blacks, Latinos, and whites, but there wasn’t much mingling between the groups. Blacks played on the basketball courts, Latinos on the soccer fields, whites on the nine-hole golf course.

Now that the vast majority of whites have fled the neighborhood, they’re a rare sight in the park. The golf course is well maintained, with many fairways running alongside the park’s tranquil lagoon, but it’s rarely busy. On a recent sparkling Sunday with temperatures in the 70s, only a handful of golfers played the course. The starter, 68-year-old George Christy, who’s white, noted that blacks and Latinos haven’t embraced golf as much as whites have, and said he figured most white golfers were afraid of the neighborhood.

Elsewhere in the park on this particular Sunday, about an even number of blacks and Latinos were enjoying the day—separately. On a soccer field near 71st Street, two uniformed Latino teams competed while Latino spectators crowded the sidelines, many drinking cans of Modelo Especial. On the basketball court just east of the soccer field, almost all the young males playing were black. Small groups of picnickers clustered around kettle grills throughout the park; the groups usually were either black or Latino, not mixed. When fights break out in the park, they’re rarely over race or ethnicity, several people told me. A 43-year-old black man watching a basketball game said that blacks and Latinos in the park have “a mutual understanding: life is too motherfucking short to be arguing over some bullshit.” But neither is there a sense of togetherness. Blacks and Latinos “say ‘hi and bye’ to each other,” a 30-year-old Latino man said. The main exceptions are the play lots for small children, which are a bit more integrated.

On Friday, August 5, a memorial to Dr. King and the 1966 march will be unveiled in the park, part of a project led by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), whose offices are in the neighborhood. The following day, IMAN will sponsor Takin’ It to the Streets, the music festival the group has staged in the park every two or three years since 1997. Panel discussions in the park that weekend will be aimed at “radically reimagining what neighborhoods like Marquette Park, and parks like Marquette Park, can be,” says Alia Bilal, IMAN’s director of community relations. That’s commendable. But when it comes to racial integration in Chicago, it’s easier to imagine it than to get it to happen. v