CHICAGO — The Bud Billiken Parade is synonymous with back-to-school time in Chicago.

First held in 1929, just as the Great Depression was about to begin, the Southside parade was the brainchild of Robert Abbott, the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender. The march aims to prepare Chicago’s Black youth for their return to the classroom and focuses on academics as the summer winds down and the fall semester begins. 

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Featuring marching bands, celebrities, entertainment, past presidents like Harry Truman and president-to-be like Barack Obama, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has been a fixture at the Billiken Parade as his pride and joy, the Tumblers, have thrilled crowds for decades.  

The group has entertained millions with one goal in mind, says White: getting the kids to school and getting an education that can be based on a pyramid of success to last a lifetime. 

“Where I am today is because I put something between my ears and that’s knowledge and it’s carried me far,” White said.  

A standout athlete at Waller High School, since renamed Lincoln Park High, White was offered a scholarship to Alabama State University. He also served in the Army’s 101st Airborne and played professional baseball for the Cubs minor league team for seven seasons. His Tumblers are a positive alternative to encourage kids to stay away from drugs, alcohol and smoking. Since its inception, more than 19,000 young men and women have performed for the team. 

“There are many young people coming out to this parade, not only to see it but also to be a part of it and no violence is a part of this equation,” White said. “It’s a win for everyone. On the Jesse White Tumbling Team, kids know the rules and regulations. You’d rather be in trouble with the police than Mr. White. That’s how tough the love is.” 

White says his recipe for achievement has remained the same – be ready, eager, and on time – because the high-ranking state official says a good attitude can conquer all. White says he learned that mindset from the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

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“He said he was a student of Gandhi, who was instrumental in bringing about the independence of India from British Colonial rule. His message: if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other. I raised my hand and said, ‘Dr. King, I’m from Chicago. We don’t do things like that there.’ He said, ‘just follow the script and you will be amazed at what the end result will be.'”