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David Handelman/Medill

Timuel Black takes a break at Pearl's Place in Bronzeville.

Timuel Black, in his own words: Equality through history

by David Handelman
March 04, 2008


Timuel Black is spry for being almost 90. The Chicago historian, author and civil rights activist walks quickly, sidestepping patches of ice that he says these days he has to watch out for.

The lifelong Chicagoan, save for some months in infancy spent in Alabama, is a teacher, historian and political activist.

Counting the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barak Obama as friends and colleagues, Black is a rolodex of historic and future icons.

Across the table at Pearl’s Place, a family restaurant in Bronzeville, Black scans the patrons, making sure that he hasn’t overlooked any friends.

Although sparse with customers at the onset of the interview, later Black is continually barraged with greetings of good will from friends and acquaintances alike: “Professor Black, how is your wife doing,”  “Mr. Black I’m doing a project that I need to talk to you about,” “Will it be the usual, Mr. Black?”

The term pillar in one’s community is thrown around haphazardly in a world of self-proclaimed idols, yet the humble Black sits at ease with a smile, greeting all who pass his congenial countenance. 

Black, who spoke of the historical context of the upcoming election and why he has decided to vote for Barack Obama, also talked about King’s legacy:

“Dr. King gave the charismatic, trusted leadership that we could accept. He was a model of what a good leader can and ought to be. He can’t be bought off. He had a great deal of integrity and knowledge, and he couldn’t be frightened off. He epitomized that kind of leadership, that now lays the groundwork politically around the country for the ascent of many blacks who then began to go into politics. This is a trend that has evolved.”

“Now we come to see a young man, Barack Obama, who leaves what could be a very lucrative legal business, to do some organizing in Chicago, voter registration.”

“As a supporter of his, I owe the people of the United States and world the best that I can do politically, and at this point I think that Obama is that person. He is not a radical, he is a good American.”

“I think that his eloquence, his knowledge, his background, makes him a perfect candidate not just for the United States of America, but for the world in general, who are looking to see, can we at this level break the color line?”

“It doesn’t mean that, when or if he is elected, everything will be equal. It could hardly be that way after more than 400 years of being punished. It will however mean that he can start the process of inclusion rather than exclusion based on race or gender or sexual preference.”

“A good portion of the population doesn’t care about [King’s] legacy, because the breakdown of communication between generations.”

“That portion of the population has to be brought up to date, informed and inspired. They have to move in unity. Bring about the kind of organizational information and spirit that transcends the United States. That’s why Obama’s victory is so important. Clinton’s would be following in a tradition that can be accepted more easily.”

“I keep going because I live for hopes and dreams. Somehow you young people will have to look back, and go forward, and make this world a better world.”