By Tom Holmes
Prexy Nesbitt never did finish his PhD work on African History, in large part because he was too busy making the history he was teaching at Columbia College in downtown Chicago.
If there was a struggle against colonialism or racism in the last 60 years in Africa or the U.S., there's a good chance the Forest Park resident was involved. He addressed Nelson Mandela by his clan name, Madiba, a sign of both respect and affection used in the Nobel Prize winner's presence only by those who were close to him. He worked side-by-side as a young man with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he knows Barack Obama personally.
The goal of his life's journey, as well as the force that drove him, was literally to change the world. "The vision of those liberation movements [in Africa] that I supported," he said in a 2009 interview with Columbia College Chicago, "was about creating just, equitable, participatory societies … and creating a world in which race would no longer be the dominant force that it is even today. It was about building a new human being."
That lofty vision grew out of experiences in the first two decades of the activist-educator's life.
Rozell William Nesbitt — he hates the name Rozell and always goes by Prexy — was born in Cook County Hospital in 1944 and grew up mainly in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood.
His mother, Sadie Crain Nesbitt, was a teacher. "It wasn't accidental," he recalled, "that she took me to hear The Weavers [Pete Seeger's group] and watch Katherine Dunham dance." Sadie was a close friend of Mahalia Jackson, whom some critics refer to as "the queen of Gospel."
"When I first learned to drive," Prexy said, "I remember taking recipes back and forth between my mother and Mahalia."
"I remember going through a phase of hating white people when I was 17 or 18," he added. "My mother came to me one night and said, 'If you want to have your own house, you can do whatever you want, but as long as you're under my roof, you can't have those attitudes.'"
Prexy and his parents had experienced their share of discrimination from white people, but those negative interactions were balanced not only his parents' perspective on race but also attending to a Jewish nursery school and a summer spent in Sweden living with the Holmgren family between his junior and senior years in high school.
"My parents were big advocates of international exposure," he explained. "Many of the Holmgrens and their friends have been here to see my family, and many of my family have been there to meet them. We're like one family."
Prexy's father was a union organizer and was very politically aware.
"My father and mother were both oriented toward learning out of life," he recalled. "There was book learnin' and there was life learnin' and you had to have a lot of both."
Prexy remembers fondly the 11-unit apartment building at 1514 S. Albany owned by his father and four of his father's brothers. "It was an institution," he said. "It wasn't just a home. It was an institution."
He recalls meals the whole building would share together, one dish in one apartment, the dessert in another, and so forth.
It was there that he and his cousins heard stories like the one about a man on his mother's side of the family whom they called "the gun-toting pastor."
"Pastors were special targets of the Ku Klux Klan," he explained, "because they were the learned ones. Rev. Crane said, 'Sometimes I got the gun in the pulpit and sometimes I don't. I ain't worried about the people. It's the bishops that I worry about.' He was anti-hierarchy. He was a people's kind of pastor. That's the kind of tradition and values that I was raised with in my family."
Book learning also mattered. In the 1950s, Prexy's parents pulled him out of public school and enrolled him in Francis Parker, a progressive school whose tuition was $2,000 per year, a lot of money then.
On a trip he and his father took to visit Yale University and Oberlin College, they stopped to check out Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. "Black people called the town the oasis of the desert," said Prexy, "because in the racism and bigotry down there in Southern Ohio, Yellow Springs was open."
He studied political science with a minor in 19th-century Russian literature at Antioch but what impacted Prexy even more was the year he spent at New University in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1965-66).
"It was mind-boggling," he recalled. "It opened me up to an entirely different world."
Early on he met a group of students from South Africa, refugees from the Apartheid regime there. They invited him to listen to a recording of a speech given by a guy named Nelson Mandela. Mandela and nine other opponents were on trial for their lives. The charge was sabotage and the future Nobel Prize winner was found guilty.
During the trial, when Mandela was given a chance to speak, he put into words a vision that would guide and energize Prexy for the rest of his life. Mandela said, "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
When Prexy returned to his home in Chicago in 1966, Dr. King was leading open housing marches in the city and using the Nesbitt family's church building, Warren Avenue Church, as his base of operations. With four months to go before returning to Antioch College, Prexy's mother suggested he "go and do some things with Dr. King."
"I worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff the whole summer and got very close to Dr. King," he said. "Some of them became lifelong friends."
Read Part II of this story next week, and learn how those seeds blossomed into a life of activism and teaching for the Forest Parker.