A Change In Consciousness
Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from a conversation BackStory had with Dr. Robert L. Harris, Jr., a former Chicago school teacher and civil rights advocate. Dr. Harris, who was a resident of Chicago and present during the Open Housing March of 1966, was prompted to move himself and his family to Birmingham, Ala. after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4 marks fifty years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a man and an icon, King took on many forms.
For some Chicagoans, King’s legacy is shaped by the 1966 Open Housing Movement, which paved the way for the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act. King’s rallies and marches placed a range of demands – including access to open housing, quality education, transportation, job opportunities, and general quality of life for African Americans– on the nation’s radar.
Dr. Robert L. Harris Jr. is professor emeritus of African American history at Cornell University and former director of the Africana Studies and Research Center. At the time of the Chicago rallies, Harris was a sixth-grade social studies teacher at St. Rita Elementary School in Chicago’s predominantly-white Marquette Park neighborhood. He was the only African American at the school. An excellent teacher, Harris felt accepted as a part of the community and was focused on improving race-relations through his work.
In 1966, Harris attended King’s rally at Soldier Field, before marching through Marquette Park.
“We were surrounded by the police who stood between us and those individuals who were opposed to the march and they were throwing rocks at us and firecrackers and bottles,” he said. “The police really weren’t doing anything to stop them but had we picked up anything and thrown it back, it could very well have broken down the police line and we would have been vulnerable to the crowd there.”
Among the protesters Harris saw many of his own students and their parents shouting at the demonstrators.
Harris had taken a stance of non-violence, same as King. However, though he saw King’s position as a way of life for the Christian civil rights leader, for Harris, it was more of a practical matter.
“I saw the significance, the importance of nonviolent direct action, but I was never attracted to it philosophically as a way of life in the way that Martin Luther King and others in the Civil Rights Movement were philosophically nonviolent,” he said. “I was practically nonviolent.”
King was assassinated two years after the Chicago March and Harris’ frustration at his death led him to make an abrupt career change. He decided to devote his talents to educating African Americans instead of improving race relations. So, Harris moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to teach at Miles College.
Harris observed differences in attitudes towards race while living in both the North and the South. He said African Americans had to be subordinate in order for Southern Whites to dominate. However, African Americans in the South often lived in close proximity to Whites in the South and youngsters played with each other, until they reached the age of puberty. After that, Black boys could no longer play with White girls.
In the North, Harris said there was little mingling; Whites simply avoided Blacks.
“I remember when I was in fifth grade and I went to a Catholic elementary school,” he recalled, “The neighborhood was changing. It was moving from being a predominately White neighborhood to being a predominately Black neighborhood, and we played together.”
“I was invited over to this White kid’s house, went over to his house, we were playing, and his older brother comes in, and I don’t use this word so I really can’t say it, but the older brother asked the friend of mine, ‘What is that n—– doing in this house?’ (Note: Harris is so bothered by the word that he actually spelled it instead of saying it.) And I never thought about any racial difference, we were close friends. But that shows that in the North there were those attitudes.”
Harris is still deeply invested in promoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy:
“Martin Luther King Jr. believed in America more than America believed in itself. Yes, the notion that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights – among them life liberty and the pursuit of happiness – Martin Luther King believed in that. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in those words, and he devoted his life to trying to help America to live up to her ideals. To close the gap between America’s pronouncements and her practices, Martin Luther King, more than anyone else, helped to put those principles into practice.”