Keith Richardson, an activist who wants to renew the fight against crime and unemployment, plans to be part of the August 28 anniversary march in Washington.
Keith Richardson, an activist who wants to renew the fight against crime and unemployment, plans to be part of the August 28 anniversary march in Washington. Credit: Alison Green

Like many other African-Americans who were born after the civil rights movement, Keith Richardson grew up hearing stories about the 1963 March on Washington. “To me, the march was about promoting unity,” says Richardson, 39, a lifelong west-sider. “It was about all races of people coming together, living out the American dream of equality.”

These ideas aren’t stuck in history. Richardson, like other young Chicago activists, believes he needs to renew the fight for justice, given that unemployment, poverty, violence, and troubled schools combine to devastate a wide swath of the city.

It’s why Richardson is planning to attend the 50th-anniversary march in Washington this month. “I still think that many of us, especially African-Americans, have a long way to go,” he says.

He considers himself fortunate to have found a good job with the postal service right after graduating from high school. Richardson now serves as clerk craft director for the American Postal Workers Union, Chicago Local 001. But his family hasn’t escaped the violence that often rips through the Austin neighborhood and other struggling parts of Chicago. In 1999, one of Richardson’s brothers was abducted and murdered on the west side.

“Sometimes I think you can cure cancer before you can stop the crime,” Richardson says. But he has no doubt that more recreational and employment programs would help. “Kids are taught to sell drugs, just like kids can be taught to work. If there were more employment opportunities, you wouldn’t have as many kids standing on the corner.”

Richardson says he has a good reason for going to the August 28 anniversary march in Washington: “I hope to come back with the feeling that I was part of something that was started 50 years before me. I want everyone to have the same opportunities I’ve had.”

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fellow Chicagoans are making similar plans. Labor organizations, including the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the AFL-CIO, are sending members. The National Action Network, led by Reverend Al Sharpton, is one of the sponsors of the anniversary march, and its Chicago chapter will send at least one busload of participants, and probably two, according to Maureen Forte, the chapter president. She’s also hoping churches and other groups get people together. “There should be a caravan of buses,” Forte says.

She says recruiting young people for the event has been a challenge—many of those most affected by issues like poverty and crime are focused on their day-to-day needs, or don’t feel linked to a broader movement.

The challenge goes well beyond anniversary events. “There’s this expectation that we’re waiting for the next Martin Luther King to show up,” says Reverend Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, who will participate in a worship service in Washington for the march anniversary this week.

Yet Moss—whose father, Reverend Otis Moss Jr., was a friend and ally of King’s—is encouraged by the level of energy he’s encountered among a new generation of activists across the country addressing “economic apartheid,” mass incarceration, and workers’ rights. “We have to lend our support and our voice to our partners in this struggle,” he says, “so we can see some things change.”

Just like the March on Washington brought together new coalitions, there’s a lot of hope right now in Chicago, a lot of people saying enough is enough.—Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative

Organizer Amisha Patel also sees a growing desire for change in Chicago akin to the calls for jobs and justice 50 years ago. Patel, 38, was born well after the march, but her experiences growing up in an immigrant family helped her feel tied to the civil rights movement.

Patel’s parents emigrated to the United States from India and eventually settled in northwest-suburban Elk Grove Village, where her mother and several relatives found work in factories. At first there were few other minority families. She remembers being teased at school and rocks being thrown at the windows of their home by neighborhood kids. “I grew up hating being Indian, being embarrassed by my culture.”

That began to change when, as a student at Stanford, Patel studied social movements and got involved in organizing, working with a group of students and community leaders to fight a toxic waste facility that was polluting the soil and groundwater in low-income neighborhoods nearby.

Patel is now executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, which has led demonstrations and educational campaigns against city and state subsidies for corporations, home foreclosures, and the closing of mental health clinics and schools.

Over the summer the Chicago Public Schools announced teacher layoffs and other budget cuts affecting schools across the city. “The biggest current civil rights struggle is about the school closings and educational opportunities in communities of color, but some of these things really transcend race,” Patel says. “Just like the March on Washington brought together new coalitions, there’s a lot of hope right now in Chicago, a lot of people saying enough is enough.”

For many African-Americans in their teens, 20s, and 30s, the Trayvon Martin shooting was a catalyzing event. A week after George Zimmerman was acquitted, thousands of people protested in rallies around the country, including one at Federal Plaza in Chicago that drew a diverse crowd of more than 6,000.

In the weeks since, attorney Yondi Morris, 30, has been working with friends and colleagues to establish town hall meetings to discuss the verdict and how they can organize around issues like mass incarceration, unemployment, and chronic poverty. They call the budding effort the New Freedom Movement. “We are using portions of the civil rights movement as a blueprint,” she says.

Stories of the movement were part of her childhood in Beverly. Her father, Northwestern University sociologist Aldon D. Morris, interviewed many of the activists and leaders who launched it for his book Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. “It was talked about around the dinner table,” Morris recalls. “I got an understanding of what it looked like to be a part of social movements and what it means for people to join together to demand change.”

One of the goals of her new group is to reestablish connections between people of her generation who have done well and those who haven’t. “So often we remain very complacent, because we have jobs and a little money,” she says.

At the same time, it’s impossible not to notice that most African-American communities are “without resources,” including up-and-coming Bronzeville, where she lives. “The amenities around my community are liquor stores, nail shops, and beauty salons—I don’t see bookstores and restaurants. At the end of my block you always see a group of men standing around drinking. On the corners are police cameras. I think there’s an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness in our communities, and people feeling like they’re invisible.”

A number of Morris’s activist friends will go to Saturday’s march and are enlisting others. “We want to bring that energy back to Chicago and mobilize people here for a new movement.”