More than 60,000 bodies crammed into Chicago’s
Soldier Field, then the seating
capacity of the stadium on the Lake 55 years ago on Sunday, July 10, 1966. The
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 & 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
The waves of change caused by that day continue to lap the shores of Lake
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 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 older 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 AFSC anti-slum symbol and button were used by the Freedom Movement.
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 apartment they moved into in January. In the window on the 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
the 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
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
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:
Boards and Brokers
Public statements that all listings will be available on a
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.
and City Council
Publication of headcounts of whites,
Negroes and Latin Americans for all city departments and for all firms from
which city purchases are made.
Revocation of contracts with firms
that do not have a full scale fair employment practice.
Creation of a citizens review board
for grievances against police brutality and false arrests or stops and
Ordinance giving ready access to the
names of owners and investors for all slum properties.
A saturation program of increased
garbage collection, street cleaning, and building inspection services in the
The requirement that precinct captains be residents of their
Housing Authority and the Chicago Dwelling Association
Program to rehabilitate present
public housing including such items as locked lobbies, restrooms in recreation
areas, increased police protection and childcare centers on every third floor.
Program to increase vastly the
supply of low-cost housing on a scattered basis for both low and middle income
Basic headcounts, including white,
Negro and Latin American, by job classification and income level, made public.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
All part of the legacy of the meeting at
But, by the way, Chicago remains the most residentially segregated city in the United States.