In 1969, the Chicago Park District acquired land already being used as a neighborhood ball field from the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago to create a new park for the Auburn Gresham community. For decades the site, known as Hawthorne Park, only offered typical outdoor recreational facilities such as playgrounds, basketball courts, and a spray pool. In 2001, the park district began working the Public Building Commission to redevelop the site into a major family recreation center. Two architectural firms, DeSteffano Partners, and Mann, Gin, Durbin & Frazier were responsible for the design of the 35,600 square foot facility which includes an indoor roller skating rink and bowling alley. Soon after the building opened to the public in 2003, Reverend Michael L. Phleger suggested that the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners should rename the park to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The board complied with the request and the park was officially renamed in 2004.
Clergyman, activist, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) had strong ties with Chicago. He helped launch a campaign called the Chicago Freedom Movement to create opportunities and improve living conditions in minority neighborhoods. He brought national attention to the need for housing reform by moving his own young family to the depressed west side in 1966. He was deeply mourned by Chicagoans after his assassination two years later.
There are two major artworks that honor the park’s new name. The park district worked with the St. Sabina Outreach Ministry and the 17th Ward Democratic organization to raise funds for a portrait bust of Dr. King. Sculpted by artist Tina Allen, the bronze bust is located in front of the new recreational center. Inside the building, muli-paneled mural is entitled We March, We Dance, We Sing for Freedom. Stretching across the wall of the rolling rink, this series was made possible by the Chicago Park District, Gallery 37, and the Chicago Public Art Group. The project artists Damon Lamar Reed and Juan Carlos Perez worked with a group of twelve teenagers to design and produce the vibrant mural.