Chicago Theological Seminary spotlights civil rights leaders

Following Chicago’s long tradition of oral histories, the Chicago Theological Seminary has produced an oral history project on the city’s Civil Rights Movement — an archival work about Operation Breadbasket, featuring onetime seminary student the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., among others.

Created with the help of a grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the archive shows how the seminary acted as an incubator for the movement’s early leaders, said the Rev. Brian Smith, director of community relations and strategic partnerships at the seminary.

In 1966, Jackson became head of the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, the economic development arm of the Civil Rights Movement organization Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as one of the leaders of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s open housing marches in Chicago.

After becoming the national director of Operation Breadbasket the following year, Jackson then founded Operation PUSH in 1971. The late Rev. Gary Massoni and the Rev. David Wallace were both seminary students selected by King to help lead the Chicago efforts of Operation Breadbasket.

The oral history project took years to complete, but Smith and Kim Schultz, the seminary’s coordinator of creative initiatives, interviewed the Jacksons; Wallace, the former Chicago branch secretary of Operation Breadbasket; the Rev. Janette Wilson, adviser to Jackson and director of PUSH Excel; the Rev. Martin Deppe, who served in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood and is author of “Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago”; Hermene Hartman, founder of N’DIGO Studio and publications; and Massoni’s wife, Betty.

“There’s going to be lots of delightful surprises for folks … the connection of the people, who was doing what,” Schultz said.

One story that stands out for Schultz is how Betty and Gary Massoni met Jackson and his wife, Jacqueline, standing over garbage cans in an alley, “each skeptical of the other, and the deep and enduring friendship that built out of that, both work and personal.”

Schultz said the project looks at what the faith leaders did in Chicago at that time, the diversity of the movement, white and Black, women and men — all interesting elements that surprised her.

“We are hearing stories from these people that maybe haven’t been shared before, and certainly not in this context — the relationships, the memories, the work done, how it was done, who did it, what they came against,” she said. “It’s all a fascinating look into the birth of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement.”

The six interviews are part of an archive of videos, audio and photos that will be exhibited online in May on the Google Arts and Culture platform in partnership with the Chicago History Museum, said Peter Alter, the museum’s chief historian and director of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History.

Alter said the work was a “natural fit,” given the materials the museum already has related to the Chicago freedom movement, including the purchase of the Sun-Times’ photo archive. Currently, excerpts of the interviews are available on Season 3 of the seminary’s internal podcast “Our Seven Neighbors.” Each episode pairs an interview from the oral history project with a person doing social justice work today.

“What’s great about the CTS collaborative initiative is it will include scans of photos and documents from our collections, excerpts of the oral histories, arranged by the six oral history narrators,” Alter said. “If your interest is piqued by the online exhibition, but you want to hear more from each of those interviewees, you’ll be able to go to this library catalog and watch and hear the whole thing.”

Schultz said putting the oral history project into the world has been in line with the seminary’s civil rights and social justice mission and commitments.

“We have so many challenges in this world, so many causes to fight for, and there’s so much injustice on every front that for those of us who care, for those of us who are trying to work for justice and equity — we have this immigrant crisis, we have the continued assault on Black lives, we have economic injustice — it’s easy to despair,” Schultz said. “But look at these people still doing this work, people like Martin Deppe, who are still like ‘What can I do?’ He’s 80-something years old, and he’s still working, looking to see what else he can do. He’s not quitting and that’s inspiring.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, leader of Operation Breadbasket, left, goes over notes with St. Clare Booker, Breadbasket program director, on June 9, 1971, at 7941 S. Halsted St. in Chicago, as they plan their picket of all National Tea Stores.

Jackson is in his 80s, too. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nine years ago, Jackson stepped down last year from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Chicago-based civil rights organization he founded through its predecessor, Operation PUSH.

“You get enamored with what you see now and you don’t realize it was a process and that can be said about all of them,” Smith said. He added that while the oral history project is “not exhaustive in terms of the individuals who should be noted, it’s a great first attempt.”

Smith will moderate a conversation between the subjects of the Jackson Oral History Project at the Chicago History Museum on Feb. 8. Tickets are free, but registration is required.

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