The parade features celebrities, politicians, businessmen, civic organizations and youth. It occurs on the South Side of Chicago in Cook County, Illinois and concludes in Washington Park. National and international celebrities have attended and some have served as the parade's Grand Marshal. The focus of the parade is on the betterment of Chicago youth.
Bud Billiken is a fictional character created in 1923 by Abbott, who had been pondering the possibility of adding a youth section to the newspaper. While dining at a Chinese restaurant he noticed a Billiken, which is said to be the guardian angel of youth. Some of the early Billiken columns were written by Willard Motley, who would later become a prominent African-American novelist. During the early 1930s, names of international youth appeared in the Bud Billiken section of the newspaper every week. Between 1930-34, approximately 10,000 names appeared and were archived in the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library of the Chicago Public Library. During the Great Depression, the Bud Billiken character served as a symbol of pride, happiness and hope for black residents. The character gained prominence in a comic strip and the Chicago Defender newspaper.
Although the character was created in 1923, the parade did not begin until David Kellum initiated it in 1929 as a celebration of the "unity in diversity for the children of Chicago". It has since grown to become a globally televised event—the second largest parade in the nation. The parade, which began on August 11, 1929, now includes politicians, beauty queens, celebrities, musical performers, and dozens of marching, tumbling and dancing groups. It has grown from a locally sponsored event to one with major corporate presence and is seen as a signal of the impending end of summer and beginning of the new school year. As such the parade sponsors raise money for college scholarships for local youth. The parade route has varied over the years. The original route was along Michigan Avenue beginning at 31st Street, then turned east into Washington Park. Concern for north-south traffic flow caused rerouting the parade route to South Parkway (now named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive), which runs directly into the park. At various times, street repairs have necessitated use of the Michigan route, but the primary route is now the King Drive route.
Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll of Amos 'n' Andy fame were the first guests of honor in the original parade. Robert S. Abbott led the first parade in his Rolls Royce. Dr. Marjorie Stewart Joyner, president of the Chicago Defender Charities, Inc., organized the parade for over 50 years. Numerous high-profile celebrities and dignitaries have attended the parade over the years, including U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Michael Jordan, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington, Oprah Winfrey, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday. Recent parades have featured popular musical acts as concert performers at the post-parade picnic. In 2006, approximately 26 million people saw the parade in person or on television, including 25 million television viewers and 1.2 million attendees. The 2006 parade also included 74,000 participants and 160 floats and vehicles.
The 2008 parade was dedicated to comedian Bernie Mac, a native of Chicago, who died an hour before the start of the parade.
It takes place in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, starting near 39th Street and South Dr. Martin Luther King Drive at the southern border of the Douglas community area, south of the landmark Victory Monument. It then continues south to 55th Street at Washington Park. This route covers approximately . This route takes the parade through the Grand Boulevard and Washington Park community areas.