Anthony Clark was 5 years old when his parents sold their home in Calumet Park in order to move to Oak Park, so that their youngest son could get a good public school education.
They enrolled him at First Baptist Church’s preschool, where Clark, in an instant, realized for the first time in his young life that he was a problem.
“There was this young white girl — blond hair, blue eyes — we were super close,” said Clark during an interview in December.
The little girl kissed him on the cheek and talked of marriage. They were inseparable during playtime. Until one day, the puppy love abruptly ended.
“She just told me she couldn’t play with me anymore,” Clark recalled. “We walked outside and her dad told me that it was because I was black.”
Blanche Clark, Anthony’s mother, said that she remembers her son coming home to tell her about the experience. They both cried.
“Me and my husband told him, ‘That’s her loss,'” Blanche said. “That was his first experience with racism. And throughout grade school and junior high, he continued to have certain encounters with it.”
“My parents sat me down and from that point on, they instilled in me, ‘No matter what, always love yourself,'” Clark said. “They told me not to care what other people think. If you love yourself and other people, you just have to live your life.”
Ronald Clark Sr., Clark’s father, said that he and his wife, “came to the conclusion that we’ll let Anthony be who he is.”
Clark, 35, stormed into local prominence in July 2016, when he organized a march against suburban racism and discrimination that attracted at least 100 participants, along with extensive local media coverage. The march started at Oak Park and River Forest High School, where he teaches, to Madison Street in Forest Park.
Clark had organized the march, along with a campaign to persuade area businesses to sign pledges indicating that they were against racism and discrimination, less than a week after reading a viral Facebook post about a DJ at a Forest Park bar who allegedly refused to play a hip-hop song for a group of Oak Park women, because it would bring in black patrons.
Roughly a month after the march, Clark founded the nonprofit Suburban Unity Alliance. The organization, which has over 2,000 members in its Facebook group and a board of directors, advocates for both victims and alleged perpetrators of discrimination who are “interested in positive resolutions,” according to SUA’s website.
During an interview in December, Clark said that he has since had a conversation, and patched things up, with the owner of the Forest Park bar. Pam Hessing, who was among the group of women at the bar on the night of the incident, has since joined SUA and even formed groups of her own.
The organization’s efforts are diverse — it has developed GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for the homeless, hosted Halloween costume drives and Christmas toy drives, organized memorials and vigils for those affected by gun violence, pushed for the village to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day and even organized search efforts for the body of a teenager who drowned in the Des Plaines River in May.
Over the last two years, Clark has garnered a significant base of supporters and critics.
“Anthony is, I think, the first person in Oak Park in recent history who has really made Oak Parkers rethink how we are about race in this village,” said Deno Andrews, an Oak Park village trustee and SUA board member. “There have been some very uncomfortable moments with Anthony at the helm of this discussion. I think it’s about time. I think Oak Park has rested on laurels for a long time.”
Sharita Galloway’s son, OPRF senior Elijah Sims, was gunned down in Austin in September 2016. Clark, who taught Sims, organized a vigil days after the teen’s murder and helped establish a reward for information leading to the suspect’s arrest.
“The morning Elijah passed, Anthony called me and offered his condolences and asked if it was OK if he did a vigil, and our relationship went from there,” said Galloway, who Clark said is now like a sister.
“Anthony is not afraid to fight for the people, he’s young and energetic and very passionate about what he does,” she said.
Hessing said that, since the 2016 march, she and Clark have collaborated on a number of projects and have come of age together in community organizing. Hessing has since helped found Oak Park Progressive Women and sits on District 97’s PTO diversity committee.
“He’s been an amazing support,” she said, adding that the importance of Clark’s message was reinforced with the election of President Donald Trump.
“I think, what accompanied the horror of Trump getting elected is this realization among many people that these things are real,” Hessing said. “To watch Nazis march and our president say, ‘Hey, these are good guys,’ witnessing that is just shocking.”
Amy Renzulli, the owner of School of Rock in Oak Park and an SUA member, said that she first established a relationship with Clark after Sims’ murder.
“Anthony emerged as a natural leader that many of us needed at the time,” Renzulli said. “He just rose to the occasion, helping all of us come together as a community and to share in our grief.”
Local public opinion of Clark, however, isn’t unanimously praiseworthy. In May, after being recruited and vetted by left-leaning political organizations Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, Clark announced that he would run against Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-7th).
The move, to some of his critics, seemed audacious and improbable.
“Clark has never been elected to anything, not even the library board,” wrote Kevin Peppard, in the comments section of a Wednesday Journal article announcing the run.
“He has absolutely no chance, particularly with a campaign statement that is a cross between Muhammad Ali talking to Howard Cosell in rhyme, and a rap artist,” said Peppard, referencing a hip-hop video that Clark released around the same time he announced his candidacy.
Others have criticized SUA’s seeming lack of political substance and focus, a critique that Clark and SUA members are aware of. In December, Clark addressed critics who have claimed that his organization’s focus is too shallow or dispersed.
“The reason these systemic issues [of racism, sexism, etc.] exist is because we’re not taking enough risks in our communities,” Clark said. “We need a cultural revolution in order to change these systems. If you go to a march on the weekend, but go back to work in the same oppressive system you just marched against, what have you done?”
“People are looking for something other than hollow policies and promises,” said Loren Middleton, an Oak Park musician who met Clark while planning a concert. “We want to feel like the leadership has sincere connection to people and that they understand the interests of the working class.”
In October, Clark was also the subject of criticism after he posted a Snapchat photo of a white OPRF student in blackface to Facebook. Clark, who at the time said he removed the photo after he realized that he knew the student, had been planning to organize a public meeting at his home between the student and members of Black Leaders Union (underneath the blackface photo, the student wrote that he was running to be president of the union).
The meetings were cancelled after Oak Park and River Forest High School officials placed Clark on paid administrative leave while the incident was being investigated. He eventually returned to the classroom after roughly a week off. School officials had suspected that Clark may have violated district internet policies, which prohibit staff from sharing images of students online without permission.
The mother of the student, who was later suspended and has since left OPRF after receiving threats, said that she supported Clark’s efforts at reconciliation. Dozens of people marched on Lake Street days after Clark was suspended, but many parents and community members criticized the decision as impulsive and potentially detrimental.
For Clark, the decision was in line with a style of confrontation and risk-taking that he said he isn’t giving up anytime soon.
“I spent so many years in Oak Park lacking ownership and feeling like I didn’t belong,” he said. “I would often question, ‘Does this community want me here?’ Imagine how many more young people, who don’t have the resources and parents I did, feel that way? But I made the community my own. My parents taught me that you have to accept yourself and make other people feel you.
“I’m here, either deal with me or don’t.”
Tim Inklebarger contributed to this story
Corrections: This article has been updated to reflect several corrections. A previous post misspelled Pem Hessing and Sharita Galloway. It also noted that Clark’s family moved from Calumet City, when they actually moved from Calumet Park. Wednesday Journal regrets the errors.