MLK Weekend, April 6, 1968
49 years ago, I participated in a history- and life-changing event on the West Side of Chicago.
I was 19 years old, in my second year at the University of Iowa, and traveled with my campus Wesleyan Foundation group to take a course called “Cultural Studies I” at the Ecumenical Institute on the West Side of Chicago.
The day before the course was scheduled to begin, Martin Luther King was assassinated. From our small-town Iowa perspective, though, we saw no reason not to go to Chicago for the course.
When we arrived in Chicago after a 5-hour drive on Friday, it was clear that the assassination had catalyzed unrest, but it wasn’t clear what was going to happen. The others in the car decided to turn around and go home, just in case. My brother and his family (David and Linda Zahrt, Jay and Heidi) were working at the Institute, and they weren’t fleeing, so I decided to stay.
The first session on Friday evening began as scheduled in a lower floor room with windows at ground level. I remember sitting next to what seemed to me to be an older man, Sheldon Hill, and thinking “there is no generation gap”, because we seemed to be on the same page of understanding. As the session progressed, we heard shouting out on the street and saw legs running by with gun barrels.
After the session ended, I went up to my dorm room and looked out. I could see fires burning within a block or so on 3 sides of the building, and on the fourth side was the Eisenhower Expressway filled with cars getting out of the city.
I went to my brother’s apartment to talk with him and hang out with family. I didn’t want to be alone, as it was pretty scary and I was stranded. After a little while there was a knock on the door, and we were told everyone was evacuating the building, as someone had broken in and tried to start a fire in the building.
There was a long-unused tunnel between the Institute campus and a hospital across the street. Somehow the tunnel was opened and we all went across to the hospital basement. By this time almost every participant had escaped via the expressway, so there were only a couple of participants and Institute staff. My brother and sister-in-law asked me to watch their two small children, who were wild with the energy around us. At various points the National Guard would come in to get coffee, and smoke would roll in with them. Someone had a radio, and we heard that inner cities were burning all over America. It felt like Armegeddon.
At daybreak on Saturday, when the rioters were exhausted and it was a bit quieter, we walked across the street back to the Institute. The entire staff (maybe 40 people) gathered in Room A to decide what to do. The children were in a nearby room with a couple of mothers. There were only 3 of us who were not staff, one of whom was the president of the Institute’s board. I watched as the staff talked through their profound commitment to help the community develop, and the dangers that staying there would have. In the end, they decided by consensus to stay and risk their lives to support the community, since they had made a commitment. They also decided to send out the children and the women who were pregnant to friends and supporters in the suburbs for safety, since the children had not made a conscious decision to risk their lives to stay.
As a non-staff family member who did not live there, I was also sent out with the children to the home of a suburban colleague who was mobilizing her entire network to find places for all the “refugee” kids to stay. I was then sent to a home in Lake Forest, Illinois, which at the time was the richest town per capita in the world, with two toddlers. David Prather was 1 and Dietrich Laudermilk was 2 years old. I had no idea of how to take care of toddlers, and spent the night putting them back on the bed after they had rolled off.
On Sunday morning I was able to get through to my brother and tell him where his kids were, and where I was. The one other stranded participant was a student from Nebraska, and got in touch with me to ride back with her. By Sunday afternoon we were on the road home.
The next day I got up for my first class, but couldn’t make it through. I came back to the dorm, and slept for 24 hours straight.
During that event in Chicago, I witnessed a group of people deciding by consensus to risk their lives to honour their commitment to work with the community. That is a rare experience. I realized that this group of people were no ordinary group. Their care was profound. It’s a big part of the reason I started to work with the Institute (which morphed into the Institute of Cultural Affairs) as soon as I graduated from university, and why I am still with it all these years later.
Some of the impact of that event was the catalyst that created ICA’s mode of radical participation in development: it became very obvious that communities didn’t thrive from nice (white) educated do-gooders trying to help, but that they change deeply from local people and local leadership working collaboratively. Outsiders have a role in the partnership, but the lead comes from the community. The facilitative approach as an equal partner is the only way to make a difference.