By Dwight A. Weingarten
No one knew the building of Warren Avenue Congregational Church better than Rozell “Prexy” Nesbitt, whose first encounter with the church came as a 4-year-old in 1948 after his parents rolled him into the Sunday school with a broken leg.
“In fact, the truth be told, I was the first black person in the building,” said Nesbitt, now 74, whose parents would join the church soon after Nesbitt’s inauspicious first visit.
Nearly two decades later, the same church welcomed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1966 as the organization made the church its headquarters in their campaign to end slum housing.
Though the Voting Rights Act had been passed the previous summer after the Selma-to-Montgomery march, churches and government officials in Chicago were not eager to welcome King.
“The big black churches, and churches in general, were scared to death of [Mayor Richard J.] Daley,” said Nesbitt. “Daley did not want King in Chicago at all.”
While home for the summer from Antioch College, at his mother’s urging, Nesbitt volunteered with SCLC working out of the familiar West Side church, which was built in 1889 and now named the New Greater St. John Community Missionary Baptist Church.
“[King] sat and listened to me”
That summer, in a march for integrated housing through Marquette Park, Nesbitt served as one of King’s protectors.
“I was scared to death,” said Nesbitt, who recalls angry white women throwing dog excrement as well as a stone that passed by him and hit King, knocking him to the ground.
“Prexy, I thought you were this great football player,” Nesbitt recalls King saying in reference to his career as a running back and co-captain of the team at Francis W. Parker School.
As King was whisked away in a car, Nesbitt and other marchers were put on buses by Chicago police officers, driven back to the safety of a black neighborhood.
Nesbitt’s volunteer work with SCLC included more than just protective services. He was used as a prospective homebuyer in an attempt to expose racially restrictive real estate practices.
His work for SCLC also came after his year abroad at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, a trip that served as a valuable source of knowledge to Rev. King.
“[King] sat and listened to me talk about Africa…for about an hour and a half, two hours,” Nesbitt said, “and from then on he would always call me ‘Prex.’ ”
King was one of many that Nesbitt, an adjunct professor of history at Columbia College, has educated over the years about issues in Africa.
“Prexy really had an understanding based off his trip,” said Basil Clunie, who met Nesbitt nearly 50 years ago while working with Nesbitt in the Coalition for Illinois Divestment from South Africa.
Nesbitt also leads educational tours of Southern Africa and Latin America through his organization “Making the Road,” which he founded in 1980.
“Left the country on the run”
After graduating from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Nesbitt ended up back in Africa not by choice, but by circumstance.
While pursuing a degree on a fellowship at Columbia University in 1968, Nesbitt walked out of the library and found himself in the middle of campus demonstrations. Predominantly white students were protesting over the Vietnam War and many of Columbia’s black students were protesting the university’s expansion into Harlem.
“I was raised with a certain set of values and those values said you didn’t turn your back on stuff,” said Nesbitt, whose participation in the demonstrations resulted in the loss of his fellowship, causing him to leave school and be drafted.
“I totally opposed the war in Vietnam and left the country on the run,” said Nesbitt, who headed back to Tanzania where he began working in Tanzania for the Mozambique Liberation Front, called FRELIMO.
Despite not being willing to fight for the United States in Vietnam, Nesbitt expressed a willingness to fight with FRELIMO in the Mozambicans fight for independence from the Portuguese.
Eduardo Mondlane, the founder and president of FRELIMO, said no.
Mondlane, a Mozambican who had been married in Nesbitt’s Warren Avenue Congregational Church while pursuing his master’s degree from Northwestern University, told Nesbitt that he did not speak the languages needed to fight with FRELIMO.
Instead, Nesbitt worked for FRELIMO building schools and creating an educational program in Tanzania for the Mozambicans.
“He inspired us to accomplish more”
Upon his return to the United States, Nesbitt sought to educate people about the conditions in Africa, working with solidarity movements at campuses across the country.
“He [Nesbitt] inspired us to accomplish more than we thought we could,” said Anne Evens, who met Nesbitt at Cornell University, where she was active in the student anti-apartheid movement.
Sessy Nyman also heard Nesbitt speak about solidarity movements when she was a college student. After his talk at the University of South Carolina, Nyman applied for a job with the Mozambique Support Network in Chicago, where she worked with Nesbitt daily for several years.
“I consider him [Nesbitt] part of my family,” said Nyman, who has worked on early childhood education issues and as a community organizer after leaving the Mozambique Support Network.
For Nesbitt, educating others about solidarity movements did not stop with just college students.
Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, read Nesbitt’s book “Apartheid in Our Living Rooms: U.S. Foreign Policy and South Africa” “cover-to-cover,” according to Nesbitt, who worked in the mayor’s office for a year and a half during Washington’s tenure.
“The Southern African struggles were a great school for me. …” Nesbitt said, reflecting on his lifelong commitment to activism and the strategies and tactics he learned there.
“Take your time ‘Prex’ ”
“Take your time Prex, take your time,” King once advised Nesbitt, a college student at the time, who took the pulpit to address a large rally gathered to hear King in a South Side church.
In dedicating more than five decades of his life to activism, Nesbitt has influenced change locally, nationally and internationally
Without an integrated Warren Avenue Congregational Church, King and the SCLC likely would not have had a Chicago headquarters, given the city’s political climate at that time.
While the Chicago Freedom Movement did not have the immediate success King and the SCLC might have hoped for, it did move the city forward.
“What King did do was to set this city up for the mayoralty of Harold Washington,” Nesbitt said. “Harold wouldn’t have won that election and wouldn’t have been the mayor he was, had it not been for a lot of the groundbreaking stuff that Dr. King, SCLC, and the Union to End Slums did here in Chicago.”
Less than a decade after Nesbitt’s first Africa trip, in 1975 FRELIMO helped the Mozambicans gain their independence from Portugal.
The wisdom that Nesbitt learned in his life of activism across Chicago and the world: “Listen to people. [Good leaders] don’t talk as much as they listen.”