Chicago Educator, Civil Rights Activist Reflects on Legacy of MLK

MLK Day honors the life and legacy of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

King championed many causes such as segregation, voter disenfranchisement and economic equality for all people.

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He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968 at the age of 39.

Though his life was cut short, it inspires people around the globe.

Paul Adams III, a local Chicago civil rights activist and educator, founder and executive chairman of Providence St. Mel School on Chicago’s West Side, celebrates King’s life and legacy and the civil rights movement through a day of learning.

Providence St. Mel is one of few schools that are in session on MLK Day.

“Our school has never closed for Dr. King’s birthday,” Adams said. “We celebrate his life here at school.”

Programming Monday at Providence St. Mel included an assembly featuring Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin and an open house where families and guests joined students for activities and discussions in the classroom.

Adams, who was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, met King during the start of his high school career. King was a guest speaker at the school, and it was just a few months shy of the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“He was special. I met him when I was 14, and he changed my life,” Adams said. “He was a man that was for justice for oppressed people all over the world, and that impressed me.”

Adams says he’s tried to emulate the life of King through his work as an educator.

He was so enamored by King that Adams started participating in demonstrations and became a student activist at Alabama State University.

“I felt it was something that I had to do,” Adams said. 

He marched alongside King and other protestors in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 on what is now known as Selma’s “Bloody Sunday.” Adams recalls that the tension on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was palpable. “I didn’t know if many of us would make it alive to Montgomery,” he said.

Marchers made it safely to Montgomery a few days later.

Adams received a bachelor’s degree from Alabama State University. Following graduation, he moved to Chicago, where he worked in mental health education and earned a master’s degree in psychology from Northeastern Illinois University.

His professional career as an educator began in 1971 when he was hired as director of guidance for Providence St. Mel School, which at the time was a private Catholic high school. He was named principal the following year.

In 1978, the Archdiocese of Chicago withdrew funding for the school, which prompted Adams to kick-start a national fundraising campaign for the school. The campaign drew the attention of local and national news.

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