Rev. Albert Sampson Reflects on Work with King, Inspires Jaguars
Sampson, one of GSU's first graduates, marched with King and continues fight for equality
Rev. Dr. Albert “Al” Sampson, one of the first graduates of Governors State University, returned to campus recently to share his legendary journey as a civil rights icon, ordained by his mentor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Young people, you have to see yourself with an international mind,’’ Sampson said to an audience of students, faculty, staff, and members of the community in an uplifting talk that was part sermon and part oral history.
Special guest Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, introduced Sampson, whom he called “living history,” reflecting on his work with trailblazers from King to Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. Moss said Sampson’s efforts to advance civil rights for African Americans “ensures our community is growing and developing on so many levels.”
GSU President Elaine P. Maimon described Sampson as a “living connection to history” as she welcomed the 1973 alumnus, whose visit marked both Black History Month and the university’s 50th Anniversary this year.
As a gift to the university that he said changed his life, Sampson dedicated a copy of Rise of the Phoenix: Voices from Chicago's Black Struggle 1960-1975 by Useni E. Perkins to the GSU Library. Rise of the Phoenix, a collection of personal narratives that articulate the political, social, religious, and cultural experiences of many who were part of African American Chicagoans’ struggle for equality, includes an essay by Sampson.
In “Chicago Freedom Movement Recollections from a Dr. King Foot Soldier,” Sampson, then a Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff member, writes about the civil rights organization’s journey to Chicago’s slums the summer of 1966.
King’s movement was met with mixed reactions from whites and blacks, afraid to upset the power structure and jeopardize political gains, Sampson wrote.
During a march in Marquette Park, protestors struck King in the head, drawing the ire of street gang members who had become close with the civil rights leader. King convinced the young men not to seek retaliation and to embrace the nonviolent principles of the movement.
In Rise of the Phoenix, Sampson related an exchange between King and members of street gang:
Dr. King was a powerful listener. As the young men expressed anger and outrage, he suddenly asked them a question.
“If a house is burning, would you put more fire on that fire?”
The street leaders became indignant and accused Dr. King of insulting their intelligence.
“Man everybody knows you fight fire with water,” they yelled.
“Exactly,” King said, “that is what nonviolence is.”
After the summer stay in Chicago, Sampson returned to Atlanta, then moved back to Chicago after King was assassinated in 1968. He enrolled in GSU in the early 70s to pursue a master’s degree in cultural studies.
“Governors State was in its infancy when you were here,” said GSU Professor Rashidah Muhammad, who led the discussion with Sampson at GSU. Indeed, the university had graduated only one class when Sampson enrolled, and students met in a Park Forest South (now University Park) warehouse.
Intrigued to study social constructs and trends emerging in the mid-70s, Sampson said, “GSU gave me something cultural,’’ with a flourish of his hand.
When asked about his thoughts on young activists such as those leading the Black Lives Matter movement, Sampson said simply, “When you have people, you have to know where to take them.”
Sampson received a standing ovation that brought him to tears.
He closed the discussion with a request to GSU administrators to partner with him to help other students through agricultural programs and scholarships to help end the epidemics of diabetes and heart disease which disproportionately affect the African American community. “GSU provided me with guidance 50 years ago. Let’s keep it going.”