While many of the tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. talk about the important marches and speeches in the early 1960s regarding civil rights (and the subsequent legislation), the last three years of King’s life are less well-known. Having grown up in the Chicago area, I was not aware that King spent a significant amount of time in Chicago in 1966 until I was doing some research in recent years. The Encyclopedia of Chicago has a brief summary:
But in the summer of 1965, the nature of King’s connection to Chicago changed. Responding to requests from local civil rights forces, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined the fight against school superintendent Benjamin Willis and Chicago’s segregated public schools. By the fall, SCLC had allied with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations to launch a campaign to end slums in the city, which would become known as the Chicago Freedom Movement.
King relied on his lieutenant James Bevel to energize the first phases of the campaign, but in January 1966 he captured national headlines when he moved his family into a dingy apartment in the West Side ghetto. It was not until June that King and his advisors, under pressure to produce results, settled on a focus for the Chicago movement. King himself participated in two dramatic marches into all-white neighborhoods during a two-month open-housing campaign during the summer of 1966. These fair-housing protests brought real estate, political, business, and religious leaders to the conference table for “summit” negotiations.
In late August, King and Mayor Richard J. Daley announced that an agreement had been reached: the marches would stop, while city leaders promised to promote fair housing. King hoped that the “summit” accord would be an important step toward making Chicago an open city, but black militants denounced the settlement and the Daley administration never fulfilled its promises.
Several things are notable about this effort:
1. This was a large-scale movement in the North. Most depictions of the Civil Rights Movement imply that all the action or the problems that needed to be solved were in the South. This was not the case then or now. Indeed, measures of housing segregation show that the most segregated cities in terms of race are still in the North.
2. Even with the passing of Civil Rights legislation, this issue of housing discrimination and segregation is one that has plagued America. While the housing discrimination of today is less overt than that of the past (exclusionary zoning, differential treatment, and high prices today vs. redlining, blockbusting, and restrictive covenants in the past), King’s efforts are notable. Of his efforts in Chicago, King said something like “if we can solve the issue of housing in Chicago, we can solve it anywhere.” Chicago was notorious then for its segregation and this is still the case today.
3. Perhaps we don’t hear about these issues from King’s later years, such as housing or his thoughts about Vietnam or his efforts on behalf of labor, because they don’t seem to have clear solutions. Civil rights is an issue that seemed to have been solved with the Civil Rights Acts (though this isn’t quite the case). But housing is a long-standing concern in many cities and metropolitan areas. Viewpoints on Vietnam are still mixed and get brought up again in discussions of current wars.
4. This part of Chicago’s history is not one that is widely talked about. King and his followers led numerous marches in 1966 that were met with much resistance, particularly when marching in white neighborhoods. Chicago and the region has a longer history of negative incidents: one, in particular, in Cicero in the 1950s is often cited as a black family who moved into an apartment was met by an angry mob (including many housewives) who firebombed the apartment building. As the Encyclopedia entry suggested, the older Mayor Daley did meet with King but didn’t follow through on his promises. These sorts of moments are often scrubbed or ignored in history as they don’t reflect too favorably on communities. At the same time, we need to know about these to help understand the present reality.