By Ben Joravsky
For the last few years Dee Dawn Smith Simmons has devoted herself to the difficult task of turning streets and a park on the southwest side into memorials to civil rights martyrs.
Most of the opposition she's faced has come not from angry white residents but from a black alderman. The result's a racial chain reaction bizarre even for Chicago: a black woman suing a black man for alleged racial discrimination.
At the center of the controversy stands Simmons, a poet, Montessori preschool teacher, and amateur lawyer who says she's been fighting racism since her toddler days in jim crow Arkansas, when she insisted on sitting in the front of a Greyhound bus despite her mother's fears and protestations. "I didn't know anything--I was just a little kid who wanted to sit in the front and look out the window," says Simmons. "Later I learned my mother was scared for my life." Her family moved to Chicago in the 50s.
In 1988 Simmons decided the city ought to honorarily name 71st Street for Emmett Till, the south-side teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. (Till was dragged from his uncle's home late at night, beaten, shot in the head, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River; two defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury.)
"Emmett Till's a part of Chicago history," she says. "He lived near Washington Park. His mother still lives here, and his body was buried here. The horror of his death stirred the nation. For four days and nights a procession of mourners marched past his casket--600,000 mourners in all, the papers said. It wasn't just for Emmett that I wanted 71st named in his honor--it was for all the children murdered for the movement."
After months of lobbying, she won support from the six south-side aldermen through whose wards 71st Street passes, and Emmett Till commemorative street signs were installed at major intersections along a seven-mile stretch from Lake Shore Drive to Kedzie.
But Simmons wasn't finished. She also wanted to have Mann Drive, a winding road within Marquette Park, honorarily named for Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP leader assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963.
But it was clear from the start that this proposal was complicated by the electrifying racial symbolism of Marquette Park. After all it was there, not far from Mann Road, that Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow open-housing marchers were showered with bottles and bricks. And there that King, bloodied by a rock, sadly declared, "The people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate." Though the park, like the surrounding neighborhood, has recently integrated, it remains for many a historical symbol of white resistance to integration. Simmons's proposal revived bitter memories.
They clearly weren't memories Alderman Virgil Jones wanted revived; his relatively strong support among white voters in the ward's western precincts made him all but unbeatable in the 15th Ward.
"In August of 1992 I asked Jones to introduce an ordinance so Mann could be honorarily named by 1993," says Simmons. "I explained the significance of 1993 in commemorating black history. This was the 130th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 30th anniversaries of Evers's assassination and Dr. King's emancipation dream march. Jones said, 'I'll think about it.'"
Several months passed and Simmons didn't hear from Jones. Then in December Jones announced he would name the intersection of 67th and California for Mother Maria Kaupas, the Lithuanian-born nun who immigrated to Chicago early in the century and founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Casimir as well as Holy Cross Hospital. In February Jones proposed that the Mother Maria commemoration be extended along California from 67th to 71st and that May 2 be recognized as a special day of observance to honor her. "With thousands uprooted from their culture and traditions, the American-Lithuanian clergy sought to found a sisterhood to educate the refugees and their children and to assure the dissemination of Lithuanian culture into the growing community," Jones wrote in his resolution.
Simmons was upset when she heard what Jones had done. "It wasn't honoring Mother Maria that bothered me," she says. "I have nothing against Mother Maria. From what I hear she's a great woman who deserves the street sign. I went to her street-naming ceremony and read a poem in her honor."
Instead, it was the symbolic significance of what Jones didn't do, as well as when and why he didn't do it, that upset her. "For Jones to propose Mother Maria Drive in the middle of black history month while ignoring Medgar Evers is insulting," Simmons says. "Even his language is insulting. Lithuanians may have been uprooted from their culture, but they came by choice. We came in chains. They were seeking a better way of life. We found a worse way of life. We had to be killed to get the rights they got from the start. I wasn't asking for favors. I was asking for fairness for black history. He was clearly playing to the Lithuanian community and he wouldn't do one thing for us."
Some residents say Simmons is making too much of honorary street signs. But Simmons says there's a greater issue at stake. "This gets at what I call the spiritual stuff of segregation--the heart-and-mind damage. Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the Emancipation Proclamation, what happened to Dr. King when he walked through Marquette Park--these are important parts of American history. We should think about what they mean. It's not real racial peace if you pretend that it didn't happen. You have to recognize the past in order to learn from it. This is very important. Jones is asking us to bury black history in order to hide white hatred, and that's a cycle that's got to cease.
"I went to Jones's office and asked why he chose to honor Mother Maria and not Medgar Evers. We got down to the nitty-gritty, you might say we were speaking Ebonics style. He said, 'Don't nobody know Medgar Evers and don't nobody care.' I said, 'Well, don't nobody know Mother Maria either, but if you name that street for Medgar maybe someone will know who he is.'"
Unable to change Jones's mind, Simmons went to the top. "I asked a City Hall aide if Mayor Daley would issue honorary signs for Evers by executive order," she says. "He said Daley wouldn't, because it would be going over the alderman's head."
So she went to the media. "On July 1, 1993, Diann Burns came down and interviewed me and Jones and did this big thing on the news," says Simmons. "They showed Virgil saying he'd never name a street for Medgar Evers, that I was a meddler who didn't live in the ward and ought to mind my own business. But I've lived in the ward since 1976 and this is my business."
A few days later she filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights that charged Jones with discrimination. "Jones did something for a white group to commemorate white history, while in a similar situation he refused to do the same thing for a black group," she says. "That's discrimination. I don't care if he's black--I call it same-race discrimination."
Jones didn't respond to several phone calls for comment. He was recently quoted in the Southwest News-Herald saying, "I've named 11 streets for African-Americans and they've all lived in the area. I don't recall Medgar Evers ever having come to Marquette Park." In 1994 he was quoted in the Daily Southtown saying that naming the road for Evers "could bring about racial divisiveness."
The case continues with no end in sight. Jones is represented by a city lawyer; Simmons, who has no legal training, represents herself. Moreover, a second dispute has erupted over a portion of 71st Street that Jones had honorarily named C.R.O.E. Lane. It refers to the Coalition for the Remembrance of Elijah, a south-side group that commemorates Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam.
"I have no problem with naming a street for C.R.O.E. I respect the most honorable Elijah Muhammad. I wrote a poem in his honor which I read at the sign ceremony," says Simmons. "But I thought they were going to put the sign for C.R.O.E. on Artesian. Instead they put one up on 71st and Western. There's already one there for Emmett Till. That's snatching honor from one person to give it to another. They're disrespecting the honorary sign that's already there."
Ironically, Simmons, who calls herself "the mother of Emmett Till Road," believes there are too many honorary signs in the area. "It's getting out of hand. Ever since I filed my suit Jones has been putting up signs for black people. It seems like every black reverend's going to get one. They're putting honorary signs on top of honorary signs. It's an eyesore."
Simmons's efforts are being watched with suspicion by local Lithuanian and C.R.O.E. activists concerned that her efforts might somehow or other lead to the dismantling of their signs. Jones says she's wasting taxpayers' dollars with her cases and causes.
Simmons of course sees things differently: "Jones is the one wasting taxpayers' money--he's the one with the city lawyer. He can stop this by naming the street for Medgar Evers. And don't tell me Medgar Evers didn't live here. George Washington didn't live here, and we named a sign after him. People talk about change--when Medgar Evers Road goes into Marquette Park it will be a real sign of change." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dee Dawn Smith Simmons photo by Bruce Powell.