Nearly 50 years ago, a college kid from Wausa decided to take a walk in inner-city Chicago.
What he knew about racial tensions between whites and blacks was gleaned from newspapers and television in his hometown and at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln.
It all seemed so far away.
So one day in 1966, Randel Anderson went for a walk.
“It was just a walk in the neighborhood. I’m thinking that, you know, you do that in Wausa,” he said. “No problem.”
It wasn’t long before he came upon a crowd of black kids.
“They yelled and said, ‘Let‘s get him.’ I took off running. I ran faster than I ever had before. That let me know that this was a new, different world here (in the city) than where I was raised,” he said.
Anderson — a former Methodist pastor, financial services worker and artist who now lives in Norfolk — didn’t know it then, but he would eventually march for housing equality later that year in Chicago — with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a mere 10 yards away.
Anderson shared his experiences with civil rights, equal housing and Dr. King with Norfolk students in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday. Anderson spoke at Grant Elementary on Monday and was to speak at Norfolk Middle School on Tuesday.
As a college student, Anderson traveled to Chicago as part of the Rainbow Program. Run through the YMCA, the idea was to take college kids to the inner city to learn and live.
“Being a small-town boy, I was fascinated with what was going on at the time,” he said. “It was a great education. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.
“I was between my sophomore and junior year in college. We had some classes and then we were to find positions. The position that I had was with an organization of southwest communities doing building inspections.”
Anderson worked in a “changeover area” that was being transformed from a predominantly white neighborhood to a black neighborhood.
“The ghetto was moving outward block by block on the edges,” he said. “We were trying to get landlords to keep up their properties, and we worked with a Catholic recreation group for black kids.”
It was coincidence that King came to Chicago to rally for open housing that year. It awakened Anderson to the need for people to help each other.
“I guess my folks had instilled in me a desire for helping people who are treated unjustly,” he said. “They were very active Methodist people, and I tied in with their value on that.
“Plus, I always have liked doing exciting, new and different things. That was a part of my world view.”
Fair housing became his cause, he said, and it was doing building inspections and seeing poor conditions and unfair practices in the inner city was an eye-opening experience.
“As far as my King experience at that time … he was not a hero in rural Nebraska. So, at the time I was not that enamored, even though two years before he had received the Nobel Peace Prize and had the march on Washington and the ‘I have a dream speech.’
“That was big news, but even though my parents were very open to people of different races, the environment I grew up in wasn’t, necessarily.”
His view on King changed on the Fourth of July. Chicago’s lakeshore was crowded with black people and family barbecues.
King was promoting a march in a west suburb the next weekend.
“He was in a motorcade with several cars and every so often, he would stop and he’d get out and give a promotional pitch to be a part of the march in the suburbs. I was about 10 yards away from him when he was speaking to the crowd.
“I happened to be there because the organization of southwest communities was supporting the march and, with another college kid, we were handing out leaflets along the lakeshore.
“I was curious to see (King). When he spoke, it was like those little shivers that go down your spine when you hear somebody saying things that really resonate with you. Someone who had the courage to stand up for what is right.”
That next weekend, King rallied at Belmont Cragin, a Chicago suburb.
“It was a very conservative Polish community that was afraid of the black influx into their part of the world,” Anderson said.
“It meant that their property values would go down. Whenever a black person moved in next door, you knew that you probably lost half the value of your house. That was what helped create the anger and the fear over the open housing movement.”
In that way, the segregation in the north was different than in the south, he said. Blacks didn’t have problems living anywhere in the south, but they did have problems in public places like theaters, schools, swimming pools and drinking fountains.
“White people just didn’t want black people near them in a social setting, even though the housing wasn’t an issue there.”
In Chicago, it was reversed. People didn’t mind people mingling socially, but they didn’t want them living next door. It was probably because it didn’t change the housing values in the communities in the South as it did in Chicago and other places.
During the march in the suburbs, Anderson was in a car with all black people.
“As we approached the place where we were parking, a brick came through the window of the car and narrowly missed the person sitting on my side of the car. They were spitting on the car and jeering. They were bitter to the core about what was going on.
“The strength and the commitment of the people involved in these marches really inspired me to promote the cause of treating people how they ought to be treated.”
Each year before he speaks to students on King Day, Anderson gets out letters he wrote to his parents about his experience decades ago.
He said there is still housing discrimination in Chicago, but while conditions are not perfect, they are much better.
And schools, he said, have done a good job in teaching young people about King and racial tensions of the time.
“(The students) all know more than the basics,” he said. “When they come in, they are geared up to hear somebody who witnessed what was going on.
“Equality and fairness. King brought those things out like no one ever has. He obviously is going to be remembered for centuries.”