More on MLK in Chicago in 1966

After reading about Mayor Richard J. Daley in American Pharaoh, I learned more about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time in Chicago in 1966. His time in the city was short but very interesting. Here are the things that stuck out to me:

1. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had quite a debate about whether they should bring the Civil Rights Movement to Chicago or not. Several issues were at play: they had won legal battles in the South eliminating legal segregation but it was unclear whether they could win against informal (yet very established) segregation in the North. Also, Daley’s reputation was well-known. King decided to come to Chicago anyway over the arguments of others.

2. King based his movement out of the West Side of Chicago, living (though not all the time) in a tenement apartment in Lawndale. The West Side was a newer ghetto created when the population of the Black Belt became too large and other parts of the city were closed off to blacks. King set up there in part to avoid the black politicians who always supported Daley on the South Side. These politicians were willing to support Daley and the machine in return for being able to control their own wards. Thus, King was not fully supported by the black community when he operated in Chicago.

3. Daley played both sides successfully in 1966 and throughout his career. While Daley became known for supporting police brutality against anti-war protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention, he tried to co-opt many of King’s efforts. Even though he came from an ethnic white neighborhood, he never fully came out and said blacks couldn’t move into such neighborhoods. At the same time, the city’s policies were aimed at avoiding this (particularly decisions about public housing). Daley controlled enough of the black vote on the South Side that he never had to support Civil Rights. Interestingly, his son gave a similar response to a question about segregation in Chicago earlier this year: he started talking about how Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and immigrants and they all move around and seek a better life.

4. King and his followers tried to reach out to Chicago’s gangs, not really a concern for the movement in the South, but this proved difficult. By this point, more gang members and others thought violence was a better response.

5. Daley met with King several times with a number of other interested parties present. These meetings didn’t go anywhere fast.

6. At a march in Marquette Park on August 5, 1966, King was struck by a rock in the head and knocked down. Others yelled, “Kill him, kill him” while “another heckler threw a knife at King.” After escaping the scene, King said, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the south, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago…I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” This is one of those stories (and there are many others) that should disabuse people of the notion that the North had racial harmony).

7. Jesse Jackson was involved in this process as he had been attending seminary.

8. The final summit between the city and the Chicago Freedom Movement began August 17, 1966. After the first day, both Daley and King were unhappy about the outcome. After Daley asked for and got a moratorium from a judge on marches in Chicago neighborhoods, the Freedom Movement marched outside the city and threatened to march on Cicero on August 28. After more negotiations, the final meeting was held on August 26 and both Daley and King claimed a victory with the final agreement.

9. Ultimately, King and the Chicago Freedom Movement saw little change in the actions of Daley and the city. From my own view, it appears like Daley was able to outlast King: he said just enough without really promising big changes. King, perhaps caught off guard by the differences between Chicago and the South, could only force Daley to negotiate (and marching in Cicero was the big lever King had – one can only imagine if a major march had occurred) but not to capitulate.

Fascinating reading.

Read my earlier post about this from MLK Day 2011 here.

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