My Chicago Neighborhood Is Still Scarred 50 Years After MLK's Assassination, But My Students Give Me Hope

Apr 19, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Garland Thomas-McDavid

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, leading to an uprising in Chicago. The North Lawndale and East Garfield Park neighborhoods experienced most of the destruction in the aftermath of his death. The neighborhoods still bear the scars of that era. Fire hoses with the water pressure so strong that it tore hair from the scalps of babies who showed an unexplainable courage. Dog bites, ruthless beatings and injustices that leave me in awe of the resolve of those who came before us. While we’re still seeing the effects of that period today, I see a lot of hope, too. As the president of North Lawndale College Prep, as I look towards the future I can’t help but reflect on the 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination. Although half a century has passed, North Lawndale continues to be affected by the aftermath of the riots. Buildings, homes and businesses that once existed have become vacant lots and visual reminders of the disinvestment in our community. Despite all of this, I am hopeful.


Every day, I have the privilege of serving nearly 700 students in a public charter high school devoted to building our students as learners and as transformational leaders. The recent efforts of our students, advocating for changes in policy and calling attention to the serious tragedies of gun violence in our communities, is a manifestation of North Lawndale College Prep’s vision and mission. Much more, their partnership with the students in the Parkland community reflects the compassion and empathy North Lawndale strives to model for students in our programming and our relationships. It is so encouraging to see our core values being lived, not only by the adults who commit to take on this work in one of Chicago’s most challenging communities, but also by our students, the future leaders of our country. As I reflect on the civil rights movement, the activism of our students reminds me of the tremendous courage shown by the youth who partnered with Dr. King in his efforts to heal and change our world for the better. I suppose it is that childlike faith and bravery that is once again leading us and urging us all to be the best America we can be, one where all children are free—and safe. [pullquote]I suppose this is the evolution of the dream in places like North Lawndale[/pullquote], Englewood and the like. At times, it can be very easy to lose ourselves in criticizing the entitlement of our youth and revel in the days of old where we believe our values to have been drastically different. Having the opportunity to work alongside passionate educators who give themselves to this work and choose to grapple with all of the challenges that come along with schooling in the urban arena, allows me to witness the promise daily. This year, the babies I welcomed as ninth graders in 2010 are graduating college, and the invitations to 2018 commencements are rolling in. It’s a testament to how special these students are. The truth is there is hope. The truth is the promise is not so hard to realize. [pullquote position="right"]The truth is we can do better in education and in many other ways.[/pullquote] Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward,” and it has been said that, “a little child shall lead them.” These students live these quotes every day. I believe in the leadership of the youth of Chicago and our country at large. I appreciate the reminders they have given me, and I intend to get behind them as they are lighting the path to a hopeful future. There is still a lot of work to be done in North Lawndale, but we need to keep pushing forward. I encourage us all to put aside politics and work together to bring about more positive change that will allow the young people in the North Lawndale community, and others like it, to reach their full potential. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be at their service.

Garland Thomas-McDavid

Garland Thomas-McDavid has dedicated the past 15 years to improving educational outcomes for students in Illinois and is currently the president of North Lawndale College Prep, a charter public high school in the North Lawndale community of Chicago. She completed her doctoral studies at DePaul University, where she also taught graduate courses as an adjunct professor, and earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at Florida State University.

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