As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, the Chicago Theological Seminary is putting the finishing touches on a podcast highlighting Chicago’s civil rights leaders.
Thanks to a $49,500, one-year grant from the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the project centers on oral narratives from the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition; and David Wallace and the late Gary Massoni, both seminary students selected by King to help lead the Chicago-based effort Operation Breadbasket, the economic development arm of the civil rights organization Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Jackson entered the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1964, but left before acquiring a degree. King was given an honorary degree by the seminary in 1957 for his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.
King’s honorary degree “will probably come up in a number of the interviews, but we focus primarily on the early pioneers that were connected here with the early Breadbasket movement,” said the Rev. Brian Smith, director of advancement and strategic partnerships at the Chicago Theological Seminary.
By 1966, Jackson became head of the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, a program promoting better employment for members of the Black community by combating discriminatory hiring practices. Jackson became national director of Operation Breadbasket in 1967.
“Many people don’t know that Rev. Jackson affectionately refers to Operation PUSH as an unfinished seminary project that he started at CTS,” Smith said. Smith and CTS staff have been working on the “Jesse Jackson Oral History Project” for four years.
The grant funds will help the project reach fruition by wrapping up production and postproduction work. “This is a culmination of years of work trying to maintain contact with these individuals, and create a space where we can hear their stories and honor their legacies,” Smith said.
The podcast will also include interviews of Massoni’s wife, Betty; the Rev. Janette Wilson, pastor, attorney and PUSH mainstay; “N’Digo” publisher Hermene Hartman; and the Rev. Martin Deppe, author of “Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago.”
“(Deppe) was very important to this process because he was a white Methodist minister who started serving the Auburn Gresham neighborhood just as the community was turning from all white to all Black,” Smith said. “He provides a lot of context and written history that we utilize to deal with all the other podcast participants.”
The work is slated to air on CTS’ internal podcast in six, 15-minute segments in late spring.
CTS President Brad Braxton said the podcast will be used as curriculum material for CTS’ new online doctoral degree in public ministry and as another way for CTS to connect with other institutions.
“In one sense, by telling this story, we can better understand Chicago in 2023,” Braxton said. “If you are listening to these conversations … the same issues or at least very similar issues that were in play in the mid-1960s to late 1960s are the very issues Chicago continues to struggle with today and the world continues to struggle with today. By doing this kind of backward glance, we are better prepared to educate students and activists to do the work today — ongoing work of fostering better relationships with law enforcement and better relationships as it relates to housing opportunities and better opportunities for education and the kinds of processes that make for fair employment opportunity.”
The Donnelley Foundation announced grant winners Wednesday; $755,500 in unrestricted grants went toward 12 collection projects and five advisory cultural groups in Chicagoland and the Lowcountry of South Carolina as part of the foundation’s Broadening Narratives initiative. The initiative aims to fund projects that bring forward underrepresented stories, groups and viewpoints, including those found in BIPOC communities, LGBTQ perspectives, working-class narratives and small community experiences. Grant recipients receive $10,000 to $150,000 to fund new projects.
The other Chicago-based organizations that were awarded grants are: the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago ($46,000 over two years); Museum of Science and Industry ($62,500 for one year); National Indo-American Museum ($60,000 over two years); the Newberry Library ($100,000 over two years); Southeast Chicago Historical Museum ($10,500 for one year); and Bronzeville incubator Urban Juncture ($25,000 for one year). The foundation renewed its $25,000 grants to the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, Chicago Collections Consortium and the Chicago Cultural Alliance. Chicago institutions received a total of $428,500 in grants.
In recent years, the foundation has given grants to a number of local institutions for storytelling ventures. The Bronzeville Black Chicagoan Historical Society received funds in 2022 to archive 20 years’ worth of historical resources about African Americans who helped shape Chicago and the Trickster Cultural Center to create a series of videos that document the traditional use of plants in Native American healing and wellness practices.
“We’re interested in specifically looking for narratives that either have not been told, have not been told completely, or have been told inaccurately,” said Ellen Placey Wadey, director of art and collections at the foundation. “We’re really not looking at what’s been the mainstream narratives, but looking at what should be part of the mainstream narrative, and may have been excluded.”