By Kimberly Jones Saunders
Virginia Mack left Gary, Indiana in 1962, and like thousands of other African Americans, moved to Chicago to find employment and a chance for a better life amid the tumultuous racial divide of that time. Newly engaged, Virginia and her fiance Richard settled into a solid middle class South Side neighborhood called Chatham. She began working at the Spiegel Company. They were surrounded by other African Americans much like themselves, who had desires of economic stability. Prosperous African American owned and operated businesses such as Seaway National Bank and Johnson Products Company made their home in Chatham as well. And this made Virginia exuberant and proud.
“You have to understand that in the 1960s, African Americans were still victims of racism and hatred,” she said. “For us to be able to achieve this level of success was a big deal. I was happy to be a part of that momentum in my own small way. And the Civil Rights Movement was at the foundation of it all.”
In their two story brick apartment building on 79th and Ellis, Virginia and Richard read about the sit-ins and marches in the South. They watched news reports about police brutality and lynchings. They also discussed with family members and neighbors about their respect for the movement’s charismatic leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“He was special,” Virginia stated. “Everyone in Chatham, all over the South Side and I’m sure almost everywhere else thought he was special too.”
Six years, a marriage and two children later, Virginia would stand on 79th and South Park Way, about a five minute drive from her home, with those who gathered on the busy thoroughfare to express their grief over Dr. King’s assassination. It was April 5th and news of Dr. King’s death spread just as quick as the arson fires that were exploding on the city’s South and West Sides. African Americans across the country were devastated and shocked, and responded in anger. In Chicago alone, hundreds were arrested, and several died in the mayhem.
When the smoke cleared and tempers were reduced to sadness, a movement to honor Dr. King in a meaningful, permanent way began. In August of 1968, Chicago became the first city in the world to name a street after him. It was an honor, and a sign of respect for a man who literally died in pursuit of equal rights and justice for African Americans, Virginia said.
“After the South Park Way street signs were changed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, I stood on 79th Street and cried,” she said. “But I looked up at the new street sign and through my tears, I saw hope for my people that we would continue to do the work that Dr. King started.”
Part of that work began at City Hall. Chicago’s City Council voted unanimously to rename South Park Way, at the urging of Alderman Leon Despres. A Dr. King white supporter, Despres would be the first politician to sponsor an ordinance facilitating the name change.
The renaming of streets in honor of the revered civil rights activist spread across the country and eventually the world.
According to National Geographic Magazine, there are more than 900 streets in the United States named after King. The state of Georgia, King’s hometown, even boasts of the 105 streets named for him. In Chicago, King Drive, as it is commonly referred to, spans more than 14 miles, stretching north and south throughout both affluent and poverty stricken neighborhoods.
Chicago Sun-Times Deputy Managing Editor Kathy Chaney says the cultural significance of King Drive cannot be overstated.
“Along King Drive, the Bronzeville and Washington Park areas were home to many churches and African American businesses and nightclubs,” Chaney said. “Jazz and gospel greats performed in those churches and venues, and the community was able to employ its own and recycle their Black dollars.”
Chaney adds that King Drive is the current home of the Chicago Defender and the Bud Billiken Day Parade, both considered treasures to Chicago’s African American population.
“This historic, largest African American parade in the country signals a new soon-to-start school year for kids,” Chaney said of the annual August event. “On that day, it’s a family reunion for the city, and for those who come in from out of town each year to attend.”
Retired educator McKinley Brister spent almost 30 years in Chicago Public Schools. He spent much of his private life on King Drive.
“In the late 60s and early 70s, I frequented King Drive quite a bit,” the 94-year-old continued. “I took my children to an African American doctor on King Drive. I patronized African American owned banks and gas stations up and down the strip. Yes, King Drive was the epicenter of activity back in the day. As a people, we were proud of what we built in the name of the greatest leader in modern times.”
Chicago’s connection to King’s street reverberated throughout the country and beyond its borders. Community activists and lawmakers followed Chicago’s lead and pushed for street renaming initiatives literally all over the world. Streets bear Dr. King’s name in Argentina, India, Denmark, Mexico, Brazil and several countries in Africa. While new customs and community events surrounding the street have been created in these places, Chaney credits Chicago as the catalyst of this movement.
“King Drive holds many cherished traditions for the City of Chicago and its African American communities that will continue for generations,” Chaney said.
It’s been more than a generation since Virginia Mack stood on the corner of 79th and King Drive and cried for the slain leader. The street will always be a special place to her, one of hurt and hope. The 85-year-old widow says she thinks Dr. King would be proud of his legacy.
“I mean who can really say there’s another person in history who has achieved such an honor of having hundreds of streets named after them?” Virginia wondered. “It says a lot about his manhood and his character. I will never forget the impact he left on the world.”
Writer’s Note: Had he lived, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 91-years-old on January 15, 2020.