As Black History Month comes to a close today, we are reminded of all of the important figures that helped to shape many social movements during the Civil Rights era. While many of those figures, big and small, have unfortunately passed on, thankfully we have and should take advantage of our living resources. There are many people who lived and fought for change during that time that are still around and are able to share their personal experiences. One such person is Wilbert O’Neal who spent many formative years in Chicago lending a hand to key organizations bent on advancing the Civil Rights Movement.
O’Neal, 87, originally lived in Malvine, Mississippi but moved to Gunnerson. He grew up next to a plantation and lived in a small town, population: 600. At the age of 16, just after Christmas, he moved to Chicago in 1945. Back in Gunnerson, O’Neal had operated a cotton gin but four months later in Chicago he had found himself in a steel mill. Not much long after that, he began working as a custodian for the Board of Education and it was a good thing that he was.
One fortunate day, he just so happened to be working at a school where he had a run-in that would set the course of his life as a civil rights activist for years to come. He had stopped in an office to talk with the assistant principal. The conversation they were having drew in none other than Albert A. Raby, a political and civil rights activist who worked for the Board of Education. O’Neal recounts that was how they were introduced. The assistant principal asked Raby what was going on with his organization and as a Raby went on to explain, O’Neal became increasingly interested. Raby was in charge of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, a civil rights group here in Chicago.
At the time, the CCCO was struggling to gain traction but Raby was dedicated to it. Two weeks after that initial meeting, O’Neal journeyed back to Raby’s office and sat down with him. It did not take him long to join up with the organization.
“I had been looking for something like that to participate in. I’ve always been interested in Black history–[my] history,” he recalls. “I had joined the NAACP but they were too conservative…they weren’t militant enough for me.”
O’Neal knew that he wanted to go to work with Raby because their views were aligned. So, for a few years, he dedicated his time to the CCCO and their mission. Not soon after, he had his first encounter with Martin Luther King Jr.
Raby and a few other businessmen had invited King to Chicago to help put some fire into the movement in the city. Like Raby, O’Neal wanted there to be more advancement in the cause.
“The CCCO didn’t have many members…and the people that were members weren’t aggressive enough,” says O’Neal.
He recalls that it was in the late 1950s that he met King in an informative meeting that Raby had organized. They had brought King to the CCCO office, on 47th and South Park.The gathering lasted for four hours and, according to O’Neal, they were “small in number, but a small number of dedicated people.”
In attendance were Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of King’s top aides, Reverend Clay Evans, as well as a few other religious leaders and Black business owners.
“Yes indeed…there was something about the man,” muses O’Neal of seeing King for the first time. “When he came in the room…[there] was something that attracted everyone to him–especially, after he started speaking.”
He says that being in King’s presence was dynamic, remembering it as an indescribable feeling that you had to experience for yourself. Even still, it was the organizers in Chicago that King wanted to hear from.
While they discussed education, jobs, and healthcare, the main topic was the school system in Chicago, specifically the education of Black children.They were concerned with things such as the number of Black teachers, the resources and supplies reaching students, and the fact that so little Black history was being taught.
This would be the first of many meetings as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King was the president of at the time, helped the CCCO mobilize the Chicago Freedom Movement.
From that starting point, the CCCO would convene in staff meetings every so often to map out strategy. After months of doing this, they would touch base with King in Georgia.
In the midst of getting organized and trying to set up projects in the community, Raby took stock of his organization and the limited participation of its members. He had a difficult decision to make.
“…Raby spoke to me one day and he said, I think I’m going to discontinue [the] CCCO and I want to join the SCLC,” O’Neal says of Raby, who wanted to work directly with King. “He asked me, what you think about that? I said I’m going with you!”
In 1967, the CCCO was dissolved and O’Neal worked with the SCLC up until King was assassinated. He knew then that there would be a shift in Civil Rights Movement. Along with Rev. Jackson, O’Neal and many of the other supporters in Chicago resigned from the SCLC to organize Operation PUSH. In a freezing Ritz Theatre on 46th and South Park, the new organization met for the first time. O’Neal worked for PUSH, now Rainbow/PUSH, up until 2004 when he moved back to Mississippi where he presently resides. (For more, read Part 2 here).
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