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July 2, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the landmark civil rights act, intended to virtually eliminate almost all forms of discrimination.The battle for civil rights was long and bloody. WGN’S Steve Sanders looks at the Chicago events and people who sparked history making change, more than a half century ago.

“This was the first day of the sit-in January 2, 1962,” says Chicago genealogist and author Tony Burroughs. “This history has been buried for 50 years.” Big movements sometimes begin with what seem like small events. Burroughs was a 12 year old student at Burnside Elementary School, now Burnside Scholastic Academy at 650 East 91st Place, when his mother and other PTA mothers bravely staged sit-ins.

Burnside was overcrowded. But the school board’s solution was to transfer only the black kids to another school. “When they said they was gonna send them there we didn’t want ‘em to go,” says 88 year old Whempora Gilmore, one of the protestors. “That’s when we started. We couldn’t reason with the principal.”

For three weeks in the dead of winter, the mothers carried picket signs and staged sit-ins outside the Principal’s office. Though Tony’s own mother looked like anything but a troublemaker in her pearl necklace and Sunday best, she and the others were arrested, fingerprinted, and bundled up to jail.

84 year old Ruby Dillon will never forget it. “I’d never been in a paddy wagon in my life, cold, stinking, oh my – my. But we had some mothers in there praying.” “I don’t have any regrets.” That was Irene Simmons, wearing a pillbox hat, in a large photo over Burnside’s main stairwell.

That space now holds a colorful mural, created by muralist Carolyn Elaine, commemorating those brave mothers, now well into their 80’s. They came back to the school on June 5th, 2014 for a ribbon cutting dedicating the mosaic, and to hear Tony Burroughs call the sit-in, “The spark that ignited the civil rights movement in Chicago.

“It was the mothers’ and fathers’ fight at Burnside that eventually led to a citywide boycott the following year where over 200 thousand students boycotted CPS.” But in the deep South, the place from where generations of black Chicagoans had migrated over the past half century, racial segregation involved much more than schools. Civil rights lawyer Thomas “TNT” Todd was known for his commanding presence and booming voice.

“There was an apartheid system where there was complete separation of blacks and whites. You have to understand, when you deal with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that black people as a group were considered inhuman.” Todd grew up in Alabama, and moved to Chicago after the civil rights act was signed. He says back then, the civil rights movement had plenty of protestors. They needed black attorneys to make sure laws were enforced.

“It was against the law for blacks to drink out of a white water fountain and you could be put in jail for doing that.  So we had to be taught not only how to live as a child, but also how to be mindful of these traps.” One of those traps ensnared a 14 year old Chicago boy visiting Mississippi relatives in the summer of 1955. Four days after Emmett Till was accused of flirting with a white woman, he was kidnapped, tortured, disfigured, and murdered by two white men who were later acquitted by an all white jury. Till’s open casket funeral focused a national spotlight on the empty promise of racial equality, and began to embolden African Americans.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson recalls the one event that would spark his career as a lifelong civil rights leader. In 1960, he and seven classmates were arrested in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. “I will not serve you. Because of my race? Move on!” Increasingly, legal segregation was no longer to be ignored. Blacks boycotted buses in Montgomery, Alabama; protested segregated lunch counters in Birmingham; and conducted voter registration drives throughout the deep south.

But, white segregationists like Birmingham’s Bull Connor were pushing back, “You’ve got to keep the blacks and whites separate.” With moral cover from segregationist politicians like Connor and Alabama Governor George Wallace, African Americans were routinely attacked, jailed, bombed, and murdered. Protest marches were peaceful. But, reaction to them was often violent. But, it may have taken the murder of a US President to clear the way for his southern born successor to find enough support to pass a long stalled bill to end legal segregation. This was President Lyndon Johnson in a speech before Congress, just a few days after President Kennedy was assassinated.

“No memorial, no oration, or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long”. An unlikely standard bearer for the civil rights act, President Johnson used his well honed legislative skills to get the law passed. “Kennedy died a martyr,” says the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “And we embrace his legacy and his promise.  But Johnson delivered in ways no one other than Abraham Lincoln could have delivered. What the marvel is we’ve gone from being denied the right to vote on the balcony in Memphis to the white house in 50 years. This has been an ongoing continuum to make America better.” “I have a dream,” said

Dr. Martin Luther King before thousands on the mall in Washington D.C. Events big and small,    all adding up to an important 50th anniversary that came two-and-a-half years after dedicated Chicago mothers sat down on behalf of their children at Burnside Elementary school on Chicago’s south side. It’s an event that brings tears to Tony Burroughs eyes, a half century later. “To me to sit down and look at these walls to see my photo on the wall to see my mother’s photo on the wall, see other mothers’ and students on the wall. It’s amazing, just  amazing.”

Steve Sanders, WGN News.

Earlier this year, attorney Thomas Todd, donated many of his civil rights artifacts to Chicago State University. Here’s why:

You can also hear an extended interview with Reverend Jesse Jackson on the one thing he regrets.


And for much more information on our story click these links.

Producer Pam Grimes and photojournalists Steve Scheuer and Mike D’Angelo contributed to this report.