Left Justified: Rockford’s civil rights movement

By Stanley Campbell

Rockford is not known for leading any crusades for civil rights. Nay, I would say Rockford is still a little hesitant toward people’s equality among its varied residents. But we’ve moved beyond the segregated “whites only” signs, the restricted memberships to the exclusive clubs, and even allowed a little diversity to appear on our governing bodies. Might be tough on you if you’re gay, though.

Rockford Urban Ministries (RUM), for which I work, was at the forefront of civil rights back in the ’60s. In fact, the whole reason for establishing this organization was to bring an African-American preacher who would raise the roofs of the more complacent congregations and strive for civil rights in this community.

The Rev. Edsel Ammons, the first Urban Ministries director (he went on to become bishop of Detroit, and died just last month), worked on re-gerrymandering the city wards to get an African-American elected to the city council.

The second RUM director, the Rev. Charles Jordan, had trouble purchasing a house in an all-white neighborhood. Thank goodness there were neighbors like my mother, who talked people out of burning crosses and instead brought over housewarming gifts that didn’t include fire.

The Rev. Jordan led the first major integrated march shortly after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, when I searched the local history rooms, the only notice I found about RUM was this 1968 march through the city, which drew together many mourners of many colors. (The Rev. Jordan went on to become United Methodist Bishop of Iowa, and now lives in California.)

The Revs. Abner Hammond and Maynard Beal worked to open up housing and stop red-lining (banks refused to loan money in certain neighborhoods; they drew a red line around it). RUM’s directors also encouraged United Way and some of the major banks to hire people of color to better reflect their patrons.

Rockford residents actually went to Selma, Ala., marched with Dr. King and fought for a King holiday in the county. The Rev. Perry Bennett from Macedonia Baptist Church has a wonderful story about a sit-in at a Chicago Walgreens’ counter. Some white guy came up and put his cigarette out on Rev. Bennett’s hand.

Two years later, they were marching together in Cicero, Ill., with Dr. Martin Luther King.

A reminder

Candidates for the Rockford Public School District 205 Board of Education will participate in an open forum this Sunday, March 6, starting at 2 p.m. in the afternoon. Hosted at First Presbyterian Church, 406 N. Main St., downtown Rockford (parking in the lot north of the church), the program is free and open to the public and is co-sponsored by Rockford Area Lutheran Ministries, Rockford Urban Ministries, American Association of University Women, and the League of Women Voters of Greater Rockford.

The forum provides a neutral, informational setting for church and community members to see and hear about issues and candidates appearing on the April 5 election ballot. It is the only forum for the school board candidates that I know about (there should be more).

The schools can be a step out of poverty and a bridge for different sectors of our community.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the March 2-8, 2011, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!