After two hours of parading through the Chicago heat, it was finally time for Leon Holton to call for one more performance. It was early in the afternoon when he spun around toward his group, their matching bright blue pants and gold-trimmed pharaoh hats shimmering in the sun, and drew up what was left of his voice:
“Let’s go! Five! Six! Seven! Eight!” Suddenly in perfect unison, the Urban Performance Arts Collaborative’s youth dance team springs into rapid-fire motion, spinning and shimmying and shuffling until it was too much for the crowd on either side of the barricaded street to handle. As they go wild with applause, Holton wipes the sweat from his face and tries to ferry his team back onto their bus to return to their own corner of the South Side.
Holton’s dance team was one of dozens of groups that made a showing in the 85th annual Bud Billiken Parade, the oldest and largest African American Parade in the United States.
Running nearly the entire length of Bronzeville, from Pershing down into Washington Park, the parade features thousands of Chicagoans representing institutions ranging from elementary schools to local businesses to Springfield politicians. As marching bands blast jazz arrangements, families in pop-up tents cook up jerk chicken and Polish brats for the hordes of viewers parked in lawn chairs.
The Urban Performance Arts Collaborative, an exhausted Holton said, plays directly into the kind of community awareness the Bud Billiken parade represents.
“Our mission to give kids out there something to do during the summer so they’re not just laying around or getting in trouble,” he said. “Family, education and community involvement—that’s what this parade’s about.”
Held every August in honor of back-to-school season, the parade is named for a fictional character created by Robert S. Abbott, founder of The Chicago Defender. In 1921 Abbott added the “Bud Billiken” children’s section to the city’s first black newspaper, naming it for a Chinese mythological figure that protects children. In 1929, Abbott decided to hold a parade as an expansion of the Bud Billiken concept. Since then, the tradition has grown to become one of the largest annual parades in the country.
The parade has also evolved into a show of political force, with aldermen smattered through a procession that included Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Rev. Jesse Jackson. The event served as a battleground for the upcoming gubernatorial election between incumbent Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, both in attendance shaking as many hands as they could reach. The tail end of the parade featured Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, fresh off news that she’s considering a challenge of Rahm Emanuel’s chair in 2015. She waved at crowds from atop her throne on the CTU float, surrounded by a crowd of union activists chanting “Run Karen, run!”
But the event’s headlines were stolen by a shooting reported in the area, a symptom of the areas endemic violence.
A confrontation between an 18-year-old and an 17-year-old led to gunshots on the 4500 block of King Drive along the parade route, sending parade-goers running in every direction. The youths suffered gunshot wounds to the left arm and right hand, respectively, and were both rushed to downtown trauma centers where they were soon stabilized.
The shooting was the first such act of violence anyone could remember in the history of the parade, long known as a celebration of peace and community-building. It was enough to make 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell publicly wonder on Monday whether the parade route should be shortened to minimize risk.
“The parade…can be up to five hours [long],” Dowell said. “We just need to have some conversations about ways to tweak it. I’m not saying the time has to change. I’m just saying that’s something we should look at.”
But in a TV interview with Fox, parade director Beverly Reed-Scott said one incident shouldn’t overshadow what was otherwise a successful parade.
“This year when we have a minor incident, to have the lead about that fantastic parade to be the shooting was unfair to the thousands of children who practiced six months waiting for this moment to shine,” Reed-Scott said.