Black Chicagoans are full of pride about their history and culture. We should be. Look at the material. Look at the contributions to the city. The first non-indigenous settler, the founder of Chicago, was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Black man. 

Du Sable set down roots in the 1780s. By the 1890s, Chicago was the home of Black investigative journalism pioneer Ida B Wells. In May 1905, the Chicago Defender – the nation’s premier Black newspaper for most of the century – was founded by Robert S. Abbott.

There’s a lot to brag about.

Soul Train,” the iconic television music variety show, started in Chicago in the 1970s. House music’s roots can be traced here, as can drill music. Chicago restaurateurs developed mild sauce. Today it’s served at restaurants city wide. Its kissing cousin, mambo sauce, popularized in Washington, D.C., is now served nationally at KFC.

Almost everything you love about this country came from Black people

In this city of firsts, it should come as no surprise that Chicago’s first Black mayor, the late Harold Washington, then an Illinois state representative, led the push to commemorate the birthday of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the state. But that historical fact may not be widely known among Black people in Chicago. 

“Unless… people have been taught about the contributions of people who came before them, they have no way of knowing the contributions that have been made,” said Pemon Rami, a Chicago native, creative curator and storyteller. “Washington is an example of that. The history of Washington, his contributions, not only as a mayor but as state rep and so forth, has not been documented in a way that it is taught to our children.” 

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) seconded Rami’s notion about Black history and Washington. Taylor, a Chicago native, grew up in Bronzeville in the 1980s, and attended Mollison Elementary School, a Chicago Public School (CPS). At Mollison, a majority-Black school with Black educators, she learned about Washington’s push to recognize King’s birthday.

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“The same reason why they won’t say that Black people helped build this country for free is the same reason why they won’t tell you that everything that you love about this country came from Black people,” Taylor said, speaking about why people may not know about Washington’s involvement with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Illinois. 

Harold was very sensitive to our history

In 1969, just one year after King’s assassination, Washington, as a state representative serving Illinois’ 26th district, introduced a bill to create a holiday in honor of King. Washington’s efforts were partially successful. That year, Gov. Richard Ogilvie signed the bill that created a “commemorative holiday” to honor the civil rights leader.

A “commemorative holiday” meant that schools were still in session. Students spent the day learning about King, his vision and his numerous achievements. Washington continued to fight for full recognition of King’s importance and continued to fight for a paid holiday. 

In 1970, Washington reintroduced the bill in the state legislature, proposing making the celebration of King’s birthday a paid legal holiday, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Ogilvie. CPS began fully observing the holiday in 1972. Washington would go on to reintroduce the bill twice more before both chambers approved it. 

In 1973, after a state leadership change, the bill was finally passed and signed by Gov. Dan Walker, making Illinois the first state to adopt Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid state holiday. Other states would do so in the years that followed.

“Harold was very sensitive to our history,” Josie Childs, local political and civic rights activist and founder of the Harold Washington Legacy Committee, told The TRiiBE on Jan. 12. 

Childs first met Washington in 1954 at Chicago’s City Hall. Washington was an assistant city prosecutor at the time. She would later become his aide when he was elected mayor in 1983 and served as a cultural events administrator in the City of Chicago’s Special Events and Cultural Affairs department.

Source: Harold Washington. Pre-Mayoral Records. IL State Representative Records. Box 2, Folder 3.

When Washington began his career in the U.S. House of Representatives in Congress in 1981, he lent his support to the existing campaign to establish a national holiday to honor King. U.S Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) was the first to introduce a bill to make King’s birthday a national holiday just four days after his assassination in 1968. That bill did not have much support. In fact, at the time of his death, King’s public disapproval rate was more than 70 percent, according to a USA Today news report. 

The campaign for a national holiday was spearheaded by King’s widow and fellow civil rights leader Coretta Scott King. It continued for the next decade. Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder’s 1980s hit “Happy Birthday” memorialized King’s birth, and it would help emotionally center the campaign for a national holiday. 

Finally, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law. As a result, the first national Martin Luther King Day was observed on Jan. 20, 1986.

Maybe it shouldn’t have become a national holiday?

Although Washington was pleased there was a statewide paid holiday commemorating the birthday of one of the nation’s foremost leaders who fought for civil rights, fair and equitable housing, poverty, voting rights and more, Childs said he was disappointed when the holiday shifted from being a commemorative holiday to a national holiday. 

“He [Washington] said sometimes “‘I’m sorry, that it became a national holiday,“‘ Childs recalled, “because when it was commemorative, that day in school, kids had to study and learn about the figure that was being commemorated.” 

Childs said now she feels that Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been reduced to a day off for school children and that his message and teachings only center on King’s “I Have Dream” speech. However, she said that King’s legacy was more than just that one speech. 

What Childs is describing is erasure. But, unfortunately, that often happens with figures in history. For decades, King’s more radical teachings have been watered down. Today, he is beloved by all, but he wasn’t in the moments leading up to his assassination.

MLK Day should be for Black people who work for the white man

“I feel like…a lot of younger Black people probably don’t look at him [Martin Luther King, Jr.] in the light that he should be looked at because of the way white people carry his name,” Chicago comedian Larry Legend said. 

So young Black people, Legend explained, should learn something new about King while celebrating his birthday. 

Legend also agrees that more people should be productive on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He believes productivity could look like organizing community service events similar to the outreach done to celebrate Juneteenth last year. 

Legend believes that it should still be a day off work. That off day, though, should be for Black people who work for the white man. If you work for someone Black, you should be working, he added.

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Growing up in Detroit, Alex Sims, a millennial and political strategist, recalled what it was like celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day in her neighborhood. 

“We always had candlelight walks and moments of silence that were powerful. So, I try to do similar things when I’m in Chicago,” she said. 

“It [the candlelight walks] was around the school that I went to so they would have candles and walk down a hill from one part of the hill to the next. Then the kids would form a circle, and they’d sing and read poems,” Sims recalled. 

Sims, who now lives in Chicago, typically attends events such as the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, and visits Stone Temple Baptist Church out west, which hosts a yearly event honoring King. 

King preached at Stone Temple in the 1960s during the height of his Chicago campaign. King and his family moved to North Lawndale in 1966 and, through the campaign, brought awareness to injustices, such as fair housing and the poor living conditions that Black people experienced while living in northern cities like Chicago. 

“We should take this time to study who he is and try to practice what he preached,” Sims said.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.