From Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago to Black Lives Matter in Lansing, Sharon Giles sees progress and remaining work
By Josh Bootsma
LANSING, Ill. (January 17, 2021) – Lansing looks different today than it did when Sharon Giles moved to the village 43 years ago. At that time Giles—a Black woman—didn’t see many people who looked like her. Today, as a volunteer at the Lansing Community Food Pantry and an active member of the community, Giles has seen Lansing became more diverse and less homogenous as new racial groups enter her hometown and make it better.
About 55 years ago, during the Civil Rights era, she saw the opposite.
Innocence set ablaze
Giles grew up in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, about a mile directly west of Montrose Beach. In the 1940s, knowing where an African-American family lived in Uptown was simple—they lived in one of just a few neighborhoods where it was legal for Black people to live.
According to former NPR reporter Jacki Lyden, “The Central Uptown Chicago Association spent $14,000 to get a city restriction which said that ‘No Negro person can buy, own, or rent property in this district except on that block which is inhabited entirely by Negros.’ That block was a hideaway corner of Winthrop Avenue between Wilson and Leland Avenues.”
In the mid 60s, during the heart of the Civil Rights movement, Giles said white immigrants from Virginia and the surrounding Appalachian area started to settle near her neighborhood. Not long after, garages of Black families in the neighborhood would be occasionally set on fire, and Nazi swastikas appeared on storefronts and residences.
“I saw the emblem” Giles said of the swastika. In her early twenties at the time, she didn’t feel fear when these racist acts occurred in her neighborhood. “It just made you aware. You learned to look around now. You know that all people are not happy.”
A quiet childhood
Before she was born, Giles’ family moved from Nashville, Tennessee, to Chicago. “I’m sure it was for betterment, the same reason all the other people did. The reason people moved to the area was jobs and betterment for family,” she said.
The Giles family lived around the corner from Winthrop Avenue on Leland Avenue. Giles, the youngest of her family of five, went to a school where she was the only Black student in her class. However, despite the racial tension of the late 40s and 50s, little of it penetrated into her own life.
“I was just a little girl, and we were just a family having fun and growing up,” she said.
On Thursdays, Giles would go to her grandmother’s house nearby and often help her with gardening. While Sophia Brien taught her granddaughter the best ways to perfect a garden (the neighborhood beautification award was always a foregone conclusion, Giles said), she also taught her lessons about life.
“She is truly my foundation when it comes to reaching out, and helping, and trying to educate people in the proper way. She was always helping people. … Her voice was direct, but she was a supporter of all people. She would help the drunks on the street. She really would.”
Finding her voice
The seeds sown by her grandmother started to grow quickly. Before she was able to vote, a teenage Giles was helping others register to make their voices heard at the ballot box. She handed out fliers in front of the local five-and-dime and visited people in their homes to stress the importance of voting.
She did this work as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an African-American civil rights organization founded in 1942—two years before she was born. The local gathering of the group met at the home of a nearby family to talk about strategies for bettering their community.
“[I was explaining] your vote was your voice. We didn’t have to pick up sticks and stones. Just go to the polls. And I continue to say that today. It doesn’t start with the president; it starts with your local community,” she said.
Dr. King: an inspiration
Before he was known as a civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was simply a Baptist minister with a commitment to nonviolence that made an impression on Giles. “[People said] how can we do it without violence? We’re having violence put upon us,” she said. King’s approach gradually won her over: “I could understand the philosophy and logic behind it, especially if you read the Bible.”
Dr. King continued to grow in popularity on the American civil rights scene, and Giles saw him more and more on television and elsewhere. She felt a strong desire to support his work. “My thoughts were mostly how he was leaving his family, he’s standing out there, he’s fighting for all of us. We have to be conscious, we have to be an image and set an example. We have someone who’s speaking for us, so we have to get behind him and rally behind him for support,” she said.
Giles will always remember the day Dr. King led his march on Washington and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech—because it was also the day her father passed away. “August 28, 1963, is the day my dad—he went to the mountain too,” she said, referencing a famous phrase of Dr. King’s last speech before his 1968 assassination.
March of 1965 is another unforgettable period for Giles, who watched from afar as Black people marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, as a demonstration against voter suppression. “I remember seeing it on the television and reading it in the newspaper,” Giles said. “To see the people brutally beat…” she paused for an emotional moment, “yeah, I remember it.”
Giles had a friend who lived in Chicago at the time of the Selma marches and went to Mississippi to help with voter registration. Her friend never returned. “She was killed. … It never made the newspaper or anything,” she said.
Civil rights in Chicago
Dr. King brought his movement to Chicago in 1966 when he moved into an apartment on the West Side to advocate for fair housing practices. Black people who had fled Jim Crow practices in the South were frustrated to find much of the same racism in Chicago.
“He was walking through various neighborhoods that would not allow African Americans to move in, buy property, or even rent,” Giles said.
In a civil rights march in Marquette Park on the city’s southwestern side on August 5, 1966, King was met by a crowd of thousands of counter protestors, some of whom waved Confederate flags. According to journalist Isabel Wilkerson, a sign in the crowd read, “KING WOULD LOOK GOOD WITH A KNIFE IN HIS BACK.” Shortly after the march began, Dr. King was struck in the head by a stone hurled by someone in the crowd.
According to the Chicago Tribune, after the violence Dr. King said, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama—mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”
A dream deferred
Over half a century later, Giles is grateful for the ways the world has changed, but also cognizant of the many ways Dr. King’s dream hasn’t yet been realized.
“I’ve seen a lot, I’ve heard a lot, I’ve taken part in a lot as far as justice and fairness for all people—not just African American people. …We still have a lot of work to do,” she said.
She often thinks about modern civil rights through the lens of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She doesn’t want her four-year-old great grandson to grow up being stopped by police with the same frequency her late husband was.
“That’s who I’m working hard for now. I want life to be better for him because I won’t be around when he grows up,” she said. “I didn’t think at the age of 76 I would still be talking about trying to get equality.”
The teenage girl who once walked the streets of her segregated neighborhood in an effort to make people’s voices heard at the ballot box is now seeing today’s youth speak out in their own way.
Last summer in Lansing, multiple protests occurred around the increasingly diverse village, one of which was organized by three young Lansing men. At a different demonstration, children joined adults in marching north on Torrence Avenue as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech played on a loudspeaker—words from the same man who encouraged a young Giles to take action nearly 60 years earlier.
An emotional Giles remembered a night last summer: “I came home one night and I saw three little Hispanic kids standing on a corner…with a sign that said, ‘We Care’ or something like that. And I just broke down. They were young kids. See, back in the days we didn’t have children taking part like that, but we have children out there now and there’s a different atmosphere.”
MLK and civil rights today
“What should we think about [on MLK Day]? Being courageous. Helping. Being an encourager or a supporter. That’s what I think about. I think about that every day. I think about that every day—my prayer every day when I leave is, ‘Lord, let me leave a little of you wherever I go,'” Giles said.
The 43-year Lansing resident’s encouragement to today’s society is similar to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s decades ago: “We have to stop being followers. You have a voice. Speak it.”
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