|Dr. Martin Luther King kicked off his Chicago housing campaign in 1968 at Soldier Field.|
Note: A version of this post first ran in 2014. Since then the city’s reaction to the militant tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement has mirrored the backlash, righteous indignation, and the scrambling abandonment of some liberals that greeted Dr. King’s campaign and the open housing marches in white communities. Just as shameful now as it was then.
More than 60,000 bodies crammed into Chicago’s Soldier Field, then the seating capacity of the stadium on the Lake on Sunday, July 10, 1966. The Sun-Times reported the next day that thousands more were turned away. Although mega-watt stars were on hand to perform including Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Peter Paul and Mary not a single ticket was sold to see them. The real star, you see, was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and he had something important to say that day—a challenge to the City of Chicago for specific and systematic change to make African-American citizens truly equal in a great Northern city.
The waves of change caused by that day continue to lap the shores of Lake Michigan nearly 50 years later.
In 1965 with a string of impressive victories for its relentless non-violent protest campaigns across the South and Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 under its belt, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began to cast its eye to the great northern cities where the Great Migration had established huge populations of the Black Diaspora to see if the tactics of non-violence and civil disobedience could successfully be applied outside of Dixie. No American city was a more important destination and home for Blacks than Chicago—and none so completely segregated in housing and by neighborhood.
The city already had active and well known groups employing non-violent protest to pressure City Hall for changes. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) had its roots in protests to school policies under Superintendent of Public Instruction Benjamin Willis in the early ‘60s. A campaign of sit-ins and two mass attendance boycotts were aimed at the de-facto segregation of the public schools. Teacher Al Raby came to leadership of the loose organization that included sometimes quarrelsome elements including militants of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Chicago Area Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the more moderate Chicago Catholic Interracial Council and the Chicago Urban League.
|The AFSC anti-slum button was used by the Freedom Movement.|
The Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was also active on the West Side, the poorest of Chicago’s ghettos and often ignored even by older established Black groups based in long established South Side communities. But despite the White anguish, the Black community was becoming too large, too noisy, and, yes, too dangerous to be ignored.
The SCLC’s Director of Direct Action James Bevel came north in ’65 to work with the West side project and was soon also in contact with Raby who wanted to launch a new campaign against housing discrimination. With the blessing of Dr. King, the SCLC committed its resources to the new effort dubbed the Chicago Freedom Movement. Bevel and a handful of other veteran SCLC activists moved to the city to launch the project.
The Chicago Freedom Movement declared its intention to end slums in the city. It organized tenants’ unions, assumed control of a slum tenement, founded action groups like Operation Breadbasket, and attempted to rally both Black and white citizens to support its goals. The campaign created an uproar and attracted widespread publicity but was not moving Mayor Richard J. Daley and the establishment he represented to make any concessions. Very reluctantly Raby agreed to let Bevel call in the big gun—Dr. King himself.
For King this was an opportunity he had been looking for. He had wanted for some time to turn his attention to economic issues and the systematic racism that constrained Black ambitions everywhere, not just in the South. And he wanted to challenge the complacency of white liberals who gave lip service to the cause as long as it was not on their doorstep.
In January of ’66 King very publicly moved his family into a slum apartment on the West Side. He announced his intention to stay in the city and launched a new round of marches and protests. Just as Raby had feared, King became the face of the movement, an eight-hundred-pound-gorilla in the media that left little room for established local leaders.
|Rev. King and Coretta Scott King wave from the window of the Lawndale appartment they moved into in January. In the window were his SCLC associates Andrew Young and James Bevel.|
And as he must have expected, the city’s press, which had once painted him a hero for freedom in the South, now frothed in unison that he was a dangerous outside agitator disturbing racial harmony, provoking violence, and likely fronting for more shadowy radicals and Communists.
By spring it was apparent that vague or ad hoc demands were not enough. At a series of participatory democracy meeting conducted by the CCCO, the Quakers on the West Side, and the new Operation Breadbasket, the project of rising star the Rev. Jesse Jackson, ideas were gathered, refined, and sent back for review and revision. In the end a list of twelve demands was drawn up addressed to six power centers in the city.
The question then was how best to present the demands to most dramatically get the attention of authorities and to mobilize even greater participation in the direct action campaign—a rally, a march on City Hall, an address to an important civic organization like the Union League which represented he establishment, a press conference, even the launch of a hunger strike were all considered.
In the end leadership of the campaign settled on a unique stunt followed by the kind of mass rally of thousands where King’s legendary oratorical skills would rouse the Black community and White allies to action.
The big event required a scramble to organize. Money, always a problem needed to be raised, and this time donations from white liberal were drying up. There were tricky negotiations with the Park District, which was under the firm control of Daley loyalists, for use of Soldier Field. Neighborhoods across the city had to be organized and transportation for tens of thousands to the rally site arranged. The press had to be alerted and as much as possible massaged.
|Rev. King did a lap in an open car to kick of the Soldier Field rally.|
When he arrived at the stadium for the mass rally, King entered in an open convertible which drove around the cinder outer track before the bowl of cheering supporters. In his speech, King laid out the reason for the demands and campaign.
We are here today because we are tired. We are tired of being seared in the flames of withering injustice. We are tired of paying more for less. We are tired of living in rat-infested slums and in the Chicago Housing Authority’s cement reservations. We are tired of having to pay a median rent of $97 a month in Lawndale for 4 rooms while whites in South Deering pay $73 a month for 5 rooms.
We are tired of inferior, segregated, and overcrowded schools which are incapable of preparing our young people for leadership and security in this technological age. We are tired of discrimination in employment which makes us the last hired and the first fired. We are tired of being by-passed for promotions while supervisory jobs are granted to persons with less training, ability, and experience simply because they are white. We are tired of the fact that the average white high school drop-out in Chicago earns more money than the average Negro college graduate.
We are tired of a welfare system which dehumanizes us and dispenses payments under procedures that are often ugly and paternalistic. Yes, we are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the North.
We have also come here today to remind Chicago of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to end the long and desolate Night of Slumism. Now is the time to have a confrontation in the city of Chicago between the forces resisting change and the forces demanding change. Now is the time to let justice roll down from city hall like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream….
And, in the face of increased criticism of his strict commitment to non-violence by growing numbers of militant Black Power advocates, King reiterated his commitment:
I understand our legitimate discontent. I understand our nagging frustrations. We are the victims of a crisis of disappointment. But I must reaffirm that I do not see the answer to our problems in violence. Our movement's adherence to nonviolence has been a major factor in the creation of a moral climate that has made progress possible. This climate may well be dissipated not only by acts of violence but by the threats of it verbalized by those who equate it with militancy. Our power does not reside in Molotov cocktails, rifles, knives and bricks. The ultimate weakness of a riot is that it can be halted by superior force. We have neither the techniques, the numbers nor the weapons to win a violent campaign.
Many of our opponents would be happy for us to turn to acts of violence in order to have an excuse to slaughter hundreds of innocent people. Beyond this, violence never appeals to the conscience. It intensifies the fears of the white majority while relieving their guilt.
No, our power is not in violence. Our power is in our unity, the force of our souls, and the determination of our bodies. This is a force that no army can overcome, for there is nothing more powerful in all the world than the surge of unarmed truth…
…Nonviolence does not mean doing nothing. It does not mean passively accepting evil. It means standing up so strongly with your body and soul that you cannot stoop to the low places of violence and hatred. I am still convinced that nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, it cuts without wounding. It is a sword that heals, here in Chicago we must pick up the weapon of truth, the ammunition of courage, we must put on the breastplate of righteousness and the whole armor of God. And with this, we will have a non-violent army that no violent force can halt and no political machine can resist.
Later in the meeting Floyd McKissick, President of CORE, a proponent of Black Power, and sometimes a harsh critic of King, stepped to the microphone to assert that in this case CORE was in complete agreement with not only the aims of the movement, but the strategy of non-violent protest.
After the rally King left the stadium. In front of a large crowd and with TV film cameras grinding, King took advantage of a reference to his historical namesake and symbolically nailed the Freedom Movement demands on the doors of City Hall. The demands were:
Real Estate Boards and Brokers
Public statements that all listings will be available on a nondiscriminatory basis.
Banks and Savings Institutions
Public statements of a nondiscriminatory mortgage policy so that loans will be available to any qualified borrower without regard to the racial composition of the area.
The Mayor and City Council
1. Publication of headcounts of whites, Negroes and Latin Americans for all city departments and for all firms from which city purchases are made.
2. Revocation of contracts with firms that do not have a full scale fair employment practice.
3. Creation of a citizens review board for grievances against police brutality and false arrests or stops and seizures.
4. Ordinance giving ready access to the names of owners and investors for all slum properties.
5. A saturation program of increased garbage collection, street cleaning, and building inspection services in the slum properties.
The requirement that precinct captains be residents of their precincts.
Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago Dwelling Association
1. Program to rehabilitate present public housing including such items as locked lobbies, restrooms in recreation areas, increased police protection and child care centers on every third floor.
2. Program to increase vastly the supply of low-cost housing on a scattered basis for both low and middle income families.
1. Basic headcounts, including white, Negro and Latin American, by job classification and income level, made public.
2. Racial steps to upgrade and to integrate all departments, all levels of employments.
It was a sweeping and ambitious agenda that demanded concessions from every aspect of the power structure.
|Dr. King attacked during the Marquette Park open housing march as Chicago Police stood aside.|
The renewed campaign kicked off with a focus on open housing demands, protests in front of real estate offices across the city, and marches into white neighborhoods. These marches were often greeted with jeers—and sometimes violence—by neighborhood residents, most famously in Marquette Park where marchers were showered with bottles, bricks, and stones with little interference from the police. King himself suffered a minor head wound.
These marches saw the support of white liberals dwindle. Among the first to bail out was the Catholic Archdiocese. Although many individual priests, nuns, and lay people continued to stand by King and march with the movement, the Church withdrew its support while marchers strode through the heart of their ethnic parishes. The editorial pages of the city’s great newspapers denounced the marches as dangerous provocations and blamed the ensuing violence not on angry white mobs, but on the non-violent marchers.
The second aspect of the Movement’s drive was the inauguration of a series of summit meetings with civic leaders to lay out the demands and open negotiations for accommodation. Some of the first of these were with the Chicago Board of Realtors. But even these meetings were denounced in the press as thinly veiled extortion.
To his dismay, King saw his dream of Whites and Blacks coming together for justice evaporating in front of his eyes. The city grew more racially polarized day by day and the phrase White backlash entered the language.
Some authorities were willing to strike at least symbolic deals. After yet another march, this time in South Deering on August 21, was attacked by a white mob, movement leaders and local politicians arranged the Summit Agreement. King agreed to halt marches into all-white neighborhoods and to postpone indefinitely the planned march in Cicero. In exchange, the city agreed to far-reaching guarantees for open housing for African Americans.
Despite pleas by King and Bevel, CORE defiantly went ahead with a march in the all-white ethnic suburb of Cicero in September with about 1,500 participants. The marchers were, predictably mobbed and mauled. Despite the protestations of the Freedom Movement that they had nothing to do with the CORE march, they were blamed anyway.
The terms of the Summit Agreement, even those resulting in new ordinances by City Hall, made little actual and practical difference to the lives of ordinary Black Chicagoans. Raby, who felt snubbed and ignored by King and Bevel, resigned from the CCCO, which soon ceased to function. However the new Operation Breadbasket stepped up and continued to press for the goals of the Movement gaining power and influence over the years and making Jesse Jackson a major national figure in his own right.
King and Bevel left the city. They were disappointed. King considered the campaign largely a failure and was stung by harsh criticism not just from liberal whites, but from the increasingly influential Black Power movement. He turned increasingly to anti-Vietnam protests over the next two years as he planned a major push on economic injustice he called the Poor People’s Campaign which he hoped would re-unite Blacks, whites, Latinos, and Native Americans in a common cause. Preparations for that campaign were put on hold for the Memphis Garbage Strike and King’s assassination.
In Chicago the conditions that gave rise to the Freedom Movement boiled over in the West Side Riots of 1967 and the riots following King’s assassination in 1968.
A voting registration and get-out-the-vote off-shoot of the Freedom Movement led by the SCLC’s Hosea Williams helped set the stage for the rise of Black political power in the city and for the eventual election of Mayor Harold Washington.
All part of the legacy of the meeting at Soldier Field.
But, by the way, Chicago remains the most residentially segregated city in the United States.
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