When the 83rd Bud Billiken Parade steps off on Saturday, it will be hard to underplay the importance of the event for Chicago's African-American community — and the whole city.
But at its roots, it's a parade, and kids love a parade.
Chicago Defender founder Robert Abbott in 1929 wanted to do something for the youngsters who sold his newspaper, so he arranged an outing at a South Side park. According to a Tribune story in 1975, the name was the brainchild of the Defender's executive editor, Lucius Harper, who was inspired by a Chinese figurine that Abbott kept on his desk. It was the mythical figure Billiken, who protects children everywhere. Harper added "Bud." The outing grew quickly to become a communitywide event that drew thousands of people to the Washington Park picnic and parade.
Even as it was becoming a can't-miss part of the summer for families, it developed into a can't-miss appointment for politicians who wanted to join the fun — and court the black vote. In 1940, Chicago "Mayor (Edward) Kelly and other civic leaders" gave speeches. In 1956, former President Harry Truman joined Mayor Richard J. Daley and Chicago Defender publisher John Sengstacke at the head of the parade.
But despite seeing a president, plenty of U.S. senators and a flock of governors over the years, parade-goers in 1983 were truly star-struck. That year, the parade was led by Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor.
"I touched him," 12-year-old Paula Johnson was quoted as saying in the Tribune. For longtime parade director Marjorie Joyner, that year's parade "was the best yet" because Washington was there.
Bud Billiken also boasted a number of heavy-hitting celebrities and civic leaders, including boxing champions Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. Others included former Olympian Jesse Owens, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and many other singers, athletes and entertainers.
But each year, two youngsters got to rule over them all. They were the parade's king and queen. In 1983, that honor went to Alvin Jefferson, then 11, who sold the most Defender subscriptions to earn the crown — and a free trip to Disneyland for him and his family. Jefferson, who said his family attended the parade "pretty much every year," remembers that time vividly. "It was really an eye-opening event," he said. "It wasn't just being a king for a day. It was almost a monthlong series of activities."
Jefferson, who now lives in Des Moines, said the whole experience changed the way he thought about himself and what he could do with his life. "It was definitely one of those experiences that you remember," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun