Interview with John McDermott

Can you tell me about connections between Chicago people and the Southern movement?


Martin Luther King was our hero. We were inspired by his bravery and by the whole idea of non-violent, direct action protest against injustice. We adapted his methods and, ah, we also were impressed that he called on us, called on those of us in the North to help. Um, we watched what happened in Montgomery but, as his movement began, I remember in Albany, Georgia, Dr. King had a protest movement going on and it ran into difficulty and he called on, ah, religious groups throughout the North, including Chicago to send help. We did send a bus load of people and it was an extraordinary experience. They had, most of them were arrested but they were also deeply inspired by what they saw and they came back like missionaries and radicalized a whole lot of people here in Chicago. Then the march on Washington. Um, we were able to send trainloads of people from Chicago. We, ourselves, were amazed at the turnout. We were afraid we couldn't fill one train and then we filled it to overflowing. And he had touched something in the, ah, heart of people all over the country, a basic instinct of fairness, a basic instinct of what it meant to really be an American. And people were responding, Black and White and everybody and we filled the train to overflowing and sent thousands of people to Washington. And that was also a transforming experience. So we were helping him and also were grateful for his leadership. And then, um, because of those good relations, we felt we could call on him for help when we needed it. And beginning in 1964 when we had a huge rally in Soldier Field, we filled Soldier Field. In those days it held a hundred thousand people. And I think he was impressed by the strength and unity of the movement here in Chicago. And so when the Selma campaign was finished, which was in early '65, the spring of '65, he then was ready to talk to us about, indeed bringing the movement to the North and the North he chose was Chicago to come to us and that then created the marriage of the local Civil Rights Movement, which was called the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, married and, and in Chicago was called the Chicago Freedom Movement. That was really the beginning of the Freedom Movement with Dr. King here in Chicago.