Back to school means shopping for new shoes, pencils, loose leaf paper and folders. For children it often means the end of leisure days with sleeping-in late and having less structure than during the academic year. For African American families living in Chicago, the Bud Billiken back-to-school parade is an important annual event to prepare kids for school bells and homework.

So who was Bud Billiken? Well, no one. He is a fictional character created many years ago by Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper that was created around 1929. Bud was his nickname. The “billiken” is a Buddha-like charm that in Chinese lore protects children. Robert “Bud” Abbott saw the elfin-looking billiken on the front door of a Chinese restaurant and decided he would use it as the name for his parade.

It was appropriate because the parade was initially a reward for the children who delivered the Defender newspaper. They enjoyed a festive parade followed by a family picnic afterward. As years went on, the parade continued to focus on youth and made education and achievement its theme. Underprivileged youth could join the Bud Billiken club and qualify for educational scholarships and participate in contests with prizes that included trips to Disneyland. The parade was a wholesome family-friendly event intended to get kids excited about going back to school and about education in general.

The Bud Billiken Parade is a fun, lively event that takes place on the south side of Chicago with kickoff in the Bronzeville neighborhood and ending in Washington Park. It includes youth groups such as marching bands and the famous Jessie White Tumblers. The parade is the largest African American parade in the country and the second largest parade in the U.S.A. Families cheer-on the kids performing who have worked hard on float displays and marching routines and then share a picnic meal at the end of the parade.

The South Shore Drill Team has won numerous awards for their parade participation and boasts a 100% graduation rate from high school. Like the Jessie White Tumblers, this group offers youth a positive experience leading to positive outcomes. The leaders of South Shore Drill decided that it would not want to choose only 100 kids to be allowed to march in the parade, essentially cutting participating students in half. They have decided to hold their own short parade for two city blocks in Chicago near the real Bud Billiken parade route.

At a community meeting held days before the event, parade organizers insisted that people have complained that at six hours the parade is too long, and it is supposed to be limited to four hours long; that the city can’t provide enough security and other services to support a longer parade. Local activists insist that parade organizers are attempting to suppress free expression as some groups representing social justice missions such as “Black Lives Matter” have been turned away from parade participation, with the reduced size of the parade serving as an excuse. Let’s hope that the parade’s focus on youth and education and achievement doesn’t get lost in the controversy.

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Lisa Radville