EVANSTON, Ill. — The marches began right here, on Emerson Street. Day after day, a little more than half a century ago, shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On April 7, 1968, around 3,000 locals marched across this Chicago suburb, past one-story homes and small businesses, through the city's quaint downtown. They gathered at a park and mourned.
This was more than a memorial. America, at the time, was plagued by housing discrimination. Other racial inequities, too. In the aftermath of King’s death, unrest rippled across the nation. In Evanston, the fight for fair housing took center stage.
“The fittest tribute the city of Evanston can pay to Martin Luther King,” a pastor told thousands at the park that day, “is the immediate passage of an effective and comprehensive housing law.”
The pastor’s name was Jacob Blake.
Fifty-two years later, Americans are marching for his grandson. Back in April of ’68, Reverend Blake marched for them. He assembled Evanstonians at his church, Ebenezer AME. They strode across town everyday. Weeks later, hundreds gathered at city hall. The city council voted to pass an ordinance forbidding racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. It was Reverend Blake who announced the results to an overjoyed crowd outside.
Reverend Blake, according to his son Justin, even marched three times with MLK. “His speciality became affordable housing,” said Delores Holmes, a former Evanston alderman. “But he was also dealing with education, everything.” He died in the ’70s, passing a legacy of activism down to his children.
Those children, especially Justin and Jacob, were thrust into a national spotlight last week. Jacob’s son and Reverend Blake’s grandson, also named Jacob – “Little Jake,” some call him – was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
On Aug. 23, police said they responded to a 911 call from a woman who said her boyfriend, Jacob Blake, was at her home and was not supposed to be. The woman had a restraining order against Blake stemming from a July 3 incident in which she alleges Blake sexually assaulted her. Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis says his officers knew of an outstanding arrest warrant for Blake as they responded to the 911 call.
Video of the incident shows Blake attempting to enter his car, at which point he’s shot in the back multiple times by police. According to his attorney, he was attempting to break up a confrontation between two women before police arrived.
His family, ever since, has been hurting. Little Jake, they say, is paralyzed from the waist down. But they’re also fighting. On Friday, they attended the March on Washington. On Saturday, Justin – Little Jake’s uncle – led a march and rally in Kenosha. He locked arms with his kin. He thrust his fist into the air on a podium. His voice boomed into bullhorns and microphones.
As Gilo Logan, a high school friend, said Sunday: “He was kind of made for this moment.”
At 2 p.m. Saturday, around 1,000 protesters gathered on 52nd Street in Kenosha. As they mobilized, Justin stepped out of a boarded-up barbershop. “We gon’ make change starting today!” he yelled to the crowd.
A half-hour later, he walked with the crowd, down 52nd, onto Sheridan Road, past the county courthouse. “No justice, no peace!” hundreds chanted. And: “I looove being Black!” People of different races followed. “Say his name,” they cried. “Jacob Blake!”
They reached a park. A wide range of speakers addressed the masses. Little Jake’s sister. Politicians. Little Jake’s father, “Big Jake.” Big Jake described being in the hospital with his son. “He grabbed my hand,” Big Jake said, then paused to reel in his emotions. “And he said, ‘Daddy, I love. I love you.’ I said, ‘Man, I love you more than anything in the world.’ ”
Big Jake spoke powerfully, then sought out a nearby bench, seemingly exhausted. He walked slowly, with a cane in his right hand. Media hounded him. He exited via a back route.
Justin, meanwhile, bounced around the scene, arranging speakers, doling out forceful hugs. And then, when the program wrapped up, he marched again. Back past the courthouse, down Sheridan, onto 52nd, his own sons by his side.
As the crowd dispersed, Justin settled into a chair in a small grassy backyard. A beaded necklace with a Pan-African medallion dangled off his neck. His dreads tickled his shoulders. He leaned forward, yellow-sleeved arms resting on blue-jeaned thighs. He was tired and hungry, he said. He wiped his eyes once or twice.
But he was also energized. And proud. The first person he mentioned in an intimate chat with a few reporters was his father.
“He's up in heaven smiling right now,” Justin said.
On Sunday, Ebenezer AME, the church Little Jake’s grandfather once pastored, held a “service of lament.” A couple hundred locals flocked to an Evanston parking lot. Two of the first to arrive were Holmes, the former alderman, and Kimberly Holmes-Ross. “Justin, as long as I've known him, has been an activist,” Holmes-Ross said. “This didn't pop up ’cause this happened to his nephew.”
“I know the family,” she continued. “Strong Black family who's always been on the side of what's right, and fighting for what's good, for as long as I've known them. And this is [Justin’s] arena. Unfortunately he's fighting for his own right now. But he's always been fighting.”
Sunday’s service brought together people of all colors and ages in Little Jake’s hometown. "I am delighted to see a microcosm of the whole world in this parking lot today,” one speaker remarked. There were longtime churchgoers and locals who aren’t religious. There were Black elders and white children.
Very few knew Little Jake personally. Many knew Big Jake and Justin. Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook addressed the congregation. After the service, he recalled his days as a foot patrol officer on the west side, in the Blakes’ neighborhood. “They were good people, man,” he said of Big Jake and Justin. “They were good people.”
Justin now lives on the South Side of Chicago. He isn’t leading protests in the streets everyday – far from it. He’s active in other ways. He helps run Black Underground Recycling, a community organization that, in his words, works “to prevent violence; we feed our seniors, we feed our veterans, we take care of homeless, we employ youth. We're getting ready to open a free 24-hour computer lab.” The day before his nephew was shot, he said, from 8 a.m. to midnight, he was volunteering for a buddy.
“A lot of people just talk it,” said Logan, the high school friend. “But he's got his boots on the ground, he's doing the work. He's putting in the time, the sweat equity. He's earning his right to say the words that he says. Because he's lived it.”
Now he has a bigger platform, and he’s urging anybody who’ll listen to follow his lead. “Go volunteer,” he said passionately. “Go see an older lady, older gentleman. Go see somebody under a bridge who has little to no hope. Go work with a little kid that deserves better. Help mold their life. Give your time. Our father did. We do.”
He and the rest of the Blake family sent many messages Saturday – about justice, and oppression, and Black pride, and so much more. Above all was that call to action.
Justin saw a thousand people answer it, which is why he cut himself off mid-interview as the day wound down.
“You can smell it,” he said. He scrunched up his nose, and sniffed around.
“Smell yourself, smell around here. Y'all can't smell that?