FORD HEIGHTS, ILL. — CHICAGO'S black leaders are enlisting religious faith to rally embittered citizens for protests that recall civil rights marches 30 years ago.
But black activists today march more in the spirit of pragmatism than idealism. Most recently, they demonstrated, not in some stronghold for racism, but south of Chicago in this small, poor town widely known as a busy market for narcotics.
Local churches and the Rev. Jesse Jackson led the march on May 9 as part of ``Operation Man the Streets,'' an effort to guide young men away from drugs and guns and halt black-against-black violence.
Since April 25, demonstrators have walked through the most violent neighborhoods in metropolitan Chicago. They have sought, block-by-block, to lure drug dealers and gang members out of the street side shadows and under the steady hands of male mentors.
``Our main goal is to show our young people a basic alternative to the streets; we're tired of our young people dying,'' says Rev. Anthony Tyler, youth director at Mr. Jackson's Operation PUSH Inc. The demonstrators include leaders and congregants from black churches, mosques, and temples throughout Chicago.
On Sunday, the movement plans the first march of ``Rescue Our Daughters,'' a similar program devoted to curtailing immorality and ``negative attitudes'' among girls and young women, organizers say. The grass-roots rallies affirm a larger, nationwide trend in which leading black organizations are playing down integration and racial equality, and advancing efforts to combat inner-city poverty, crime, and drug abuse.
Operation PUSH and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are two prominent organizations that have put a new emphasis on solving problems at the root of black communities. ``We have decided that if we don't take a stand right now, then the entire generation will be lost,'' says Mr. Tyler. Operation PUSH has received inquiries about the program from churches in Gary, Ind., and New York City, and it plans to sponsor similar efforts in several other cities, according to Tyler.
``Operation Man the Streets'' also illustrates how black leaders have begun to at least partially blame the turmoil in black neighborhoods on black people themselves. While condemning widespread, persistent racism, black leaders ranging from Jackson to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the separatist Nation of Islam, have urged black Americans to recognize their own responsibility for drug dealing, crime, and gang conflict. ``Racism still exists and perhaps will always exist but we have a greater enemy now and it is ourselves,'' says Rev. James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago and a leader in ``Operation Man the Streets.''
Although bold in aim, the campaign so far is modest in scale. Operation PUSH and associated religious groups intend to enlist 400 men and 200 women in a five-week training program as mentors for wayward youths.
Also, volunteers will pledge to ``man the street,'' or spend at least three hours each week mixing with neighbors, politicians, police, and youths. The volunteers will propose solutions to local problems and, like the mentors, provide role models for the neighborhood, according to Tyler.
``We've challenged the men in our churches to build relationships with youths who are on the wrong path rather than just go home and lock their doors,'' says Tyler.
Many facets of ``Operation Man the Streets'' are not new. Several religious institutions in Chicago have operated mentor programs for many years.
Still, churches, mosques, and temples have never coordinated mentor programs on such a scale. Nor have they resorted to demonstrations to take their programs into the streets, say organizers of the campaign.
``Down with dope, up with hope!'' some 150 demonstraters in Ford Heights shouted as they set out Monday from the First Union M.B. Church on a two-hour march behind an escorting police car, fire truck, and ambulance.
The marchers wound through ramshackle subdivisions of burned out and boarded up two-bedroom bungalows before walking the Abraham Lincoln Highway to a church in Chicago Heights surrounded by four-story public housing apartments. Along the way, their ranks doubled.
``My family has lived in Ford Heights for 20 years, and there's never been anything like this,'' said bystander James Hannah over the chanting marchers. ``It's good to see some concern about the community; the drugs and gangs have gotten worse over the past six years,'' Mr. Hannah says.
Some bystanders said that their community needs jobs far more than mentors and marches. Yet mentors in ``Operation Man the Streets'' will aim ultimately to help their charges get schooling sufficient for stable work, said Janette Wilson, national executive director for Operation PUSH.