Seniors still feel impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Chicago Cares MLK breakfast
Chicago Cares volunteers serve breakfast at the Zelda Ormes public housing senior apartments. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

By Marisa Endicott

Imam Dawud Yemani remembers exactly where he was when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. He was in the Booker T. Washington community center in Erie, Pennsylvania, when a girl came running down the stairs shouting that Dr. King had been shot.

“I had a lot of bitterness in me against the system of discrimination and oppression,” Yemani said. And although I was of a more militant persuasion at the time, “just hearing him – his diction, his speech – was inspiring to me. I felt his spirit… good God almighty that man could talk.”

Yemani is a resident of the Zelda Ormes Apartments, a senior public housing complex on the Near North Side.

On Saturday morning, Chicago Cares, a nonprofit connecting volunteers to community service opportunities around the city, held its monthly breakfast and bingo at Zelda Ormes. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, volunteers served hot breakfast and offered craft projects to about 40 low-income senior citizens.

“I think they get a lot out of it… to have them work together, to play a game, to give each other prizes and to share and just spend a little time together, I think that’s nice,” said Gabriela Jaime, Chicago Cares volunteer leader. “I find that sometimes their own family doesn’t visit, so having a visit even if its from a stranger…they’re grateful for it.”

Blue, a Zelda Ormes resident
Henry Blue Townsend, 68, was born in Mississippi but has lived in Chicago for years. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

Volunteering is a common way Americans honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over the holiday weekend. And while the holiday wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of most of the seniors’ minds, they all lived through the civil rights movement and remember life before and after that era.

“We couldn’t go through the front door in the restaurants in the city. Blacks weren’t allowed. They had to go to the back door and knock,” said Beatrice Reid, a resident originally from South Carolina. “Like I said, I lived through a lot of history.” She moved north so that her son wouldn’t have to experience the racism she did.

“We as the black or the brown or the yellow are looked down on,” Reid said. “I think that’s why [presidential contender Donald] Trump has raised so much hell about immigrants.”

The diversity of ages, races, religions and perspectives in the large community room are a testament to some of the positive change that figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. helped bring about.

Zelda Ormes senior mugs
Seniors made personalized mugs as part of a craft project. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

However, Yemani noted the lingering consequences of racial discrimination. “It’s good to be aware and to know what really takes place… long-term effects and psychological damage, especially when you begin to believe that you are inferior… it’s what you call a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Despite all, he is hopeful. “I think that the younger generations are kinda waking up: open minded, not as naïve,” Yemani said. “It’s important how we teach people… and that’s on both sides… black and white.”

Volunteers and seniors sat and chatted after breakfast during rounds of bingo where residents won essentials such as paper towels, soap, toilet paper or paper towels, which was the most popular prize according to Jaime.

Lawrence a Zelda Ormes resident
Lawrence Weis poses with his mug and bingo winnings. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

“These seniors got a lot of life in ‘em, but they need more programs like this to bring them out of their isolation,” Lawrence Weis said. Before moving into the Zelda Ormes Apartments, Weis lived in a storage locker for 10 months. He said he didn’t mind. “When faced with the finality of life, you get to know what really matters.”

Participants get a lot out of the experience too – “you know, even a story, a nice conversation – they learn from that,” Jaime said. “They pass seniors up on the street all the time. I think we all do…They don’t realize…these people have really rich lives.”

While people across the country celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many of his contemporaries with a wealth of historical experiences and insights still live and cherish his memory.

Photo at top: Chicago Cares volunteers serve breakfast at the Zelda Ormes public housing senior apartments. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)