Visiting the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. branch was a little underwhelming compared to some of the other branches. First, the branch was small, which in and of itself isn’t a problem. The old, yellow cinderblocks definitely left the aesthetics a little lacking; however, I suppose my disappointment about the branch lied in the fact that it is named after Dr. King. While the library serves Bronzeville/Kenwood/Douglas, Dr. King actually lived on the West side, in Lawndale, my neighborhood. Pretty much like everything else related to Dr. King in Chicago, this branch glosses over the name.
Many people are unaware of Dr. King’s Chicago years. He moved to Lawndale (1550 S. Hamlin) on January 26, 1966 to advance the civil rights movement in the North. Specifically, he was fighting for equal housing rights from Black Americans. Chicago became the epicenter of his northern mission, the Chicago Freedom Movement, which attempted to “eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.” His marches reverberated throughout the country and he was met with violence on many occasions, leading Dr. King to claim “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” So, to understand Chicago-style segregation, it is important to understand the depth of racial oppression that was set up in Chicago via housing. King Richard I was mayor at the time, and opposed Dr. King’s call to integrate Chicago neighborhoods. Actually, Daley did sign an agreement of some type to foster open and fair housing, but it was largely ignored. Daley benefited greatly from racial segregation; as did (and do) the rest of the white, machine-style establishment. Shortly after Dr. King’s assassination, the Fair Housing Act was enacted federally, but Chicago remained known as one of the most segregated cities in the country. Only a few years ago in 2011, the Dr. King Legacy Apartments were built on the site where he lived. Prior to this, there was almost no recognition of him ever having lived there. There was almost a complete erasure of Dr. King’s Chicago Freedom Movement, which is why the namesake library doesn’t surprise me, but just disappoints. On the CPL website, the history of this branch reads “First opened in 1966, the branch was renamed in September 1969 to honor civil rights leader and Nobel Prize winner the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).” This is pretty depressing, if you ask me. One of the leaders of the civil rights movement, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a Chicago mover and shaker, largely erased from the Chicago context. Sure, he exists as a legend, as a shining star of history, but his vital role in Chicago specifically is largely blotted out. And, Chicago, as much as anywhere, right now as much as anytime, needs to remember that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Letter from Birmingham Jail)
Nonetheless, I had to remind myself that it isn’t the building that matters, but rather the people who give the building meaning. Within this small branch, there were many people, all of whom make the building worthy to bear Dr. King’s name. The security guard greeted me and was quite friendly toward all the patrons. There were nine people using the computers, and the computer lady was helping one older man create a resume. She even asked the head librarian to extend his time so that he could complete it. A couple of ladies walked in with Caribbean accents talking and snickering about dresses and gossip. A young guy came in to register his son for one of the library programs. A young teenager was studying near the window on orange-cloth padded chairs. Several people walked to the “hold” section to pick up books and left. Other people walked to the old card-catalog, which now held the news papers. At one point some lady started telling people she needed to go see her client. The security guard looked at her like she was crazy, but treated her with dignity and respect. Many people came in and out and it got really busy.
I was studying for my EMT class. I had to read through the chapter on trauma, so I was flipping back and forth between the glossary, the index, other chapters, picture captions, and trying to understand the topics presented. I had been there for about 2 hours when a young kid sat down to read a graphic novel. It was clear he was bored but couldn’t get on the computer. His brother sat down after, right across from me, and was reading a science book about the galaxy. It reminded me of myself reading through science books when I was young. I quickly flipped past the page with the “lacerations to the head” and continued to study. I was watching, though, as the middle schooler across from me flipped through the index, chapters, and picture captions. I smiled. Here was a young man reading this science book, doing the same types of things I was with informational text. And this is why the library is worthy to bear the name Dr. King.