Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Chicago Freedom Movement: 1965 and the Coming to Chicago.

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The SCLC’s (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) first nonviolent civil rights campaign in the North started in Chicago on January 5, 1966 – 50 years ago this month. The multi-pronged campaign was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major effort outside the South and the first following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. King’s coming to Chicago was greatly influenced by the Watts riots in August 1965 where those deadly six days demonstrated to King and the nation the high cost in human lives and property associated with deep discontentment in the black community over isolating and chronic high unemployment, substandard housing, and inadequate schools. King’s consideration to come to Chicago in 1966 was further energized by national issues activated by a local focus: in this case, King’s broad support for recent Federal complaints brought by the Chicago CCCO (Coordinating Council of Community Organizations) alleging segregation in the Chicago public schools. As there was a huge new Federal aid package for those public schools in the nation which desegregated by the start of the 1965-1966 school year, a charge of segregation in the north and in the nation’s second largest city was unexpected, provocative, and dangerous to the natural progression of the status quo.

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Led by former school teacher Albert Raby (on KIng’s left), the CCCO was a coalition of a number of disparate and sometimes contentious groups including the local branches of CORE, the Catholic Interracial Council, and the Urban League, among others. Here, King and Raby meet the Chicago press along with SCLC leader Bayard Rustin (on King’s right).

The status quo in Chicago, at least in terms of its politics, was embodied in one man: Mayor Richard J. Daley. King’s intention to come to Chicago instead of to another big northern city was that he figured to find in Mayor Daley a powerful ally to his civil rights movement. Already Daley vocalized agreement in principle with King’s message of open housing and racial justice, but King’s potential challenge to any aspect of the mayor’s absolute political power never gained Daley’s sympathy or recognition. Many in Chicago’s local civil rights community, however, welcomed Dr. King’s presence in Chicago in 1966. Activists like Dick Gregory had marched on City Hall (and into Bridgeport to Daley’s home) dozens of times but to no avail in terms of tangible policy changes for blacks in a city where blacks constituted 25% of its population. Perhaps the efforts of Dr.King in Chicago could break the deadlock. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had recently labeled Chicago “the most residentially segregated city in the nation” but Daley saw it differently. There was no legal segregation in Chicago and Daley believed it was simply a city of neighborhoods. He also felt that if government hand-outs  were not mostly un-American that, by 1965, big Federal programs should not be administered from Washington but at the local, indeed, municipal, level.

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1920’s flats, Bridgeport, Chicago, 2015.

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Chicago slums, 1950.

While Daley’s home rule views appealed to some Chicagoans, other Chicago neighborhoods remained in flux. There had been a longstanding mistrust, for instance, between poor West Side residents – most of whom were black concentrated, by the mid 1960’s, into a vast ghetto – and the largely white Chicago police and fire departments. Yet street riots in West Garfield Park in the summer of 1965 curiously produced the integration of 40 of 132 firehouses where integration had been resisted for over ten years. The City of Chicago’s contrariness to aspects of President Johnson’s Great Society carried into the office of Chicago’s Education chief Benjamin C. Willis who in October 1965 defied federal mandates for the release of requested materials and blocked the use of new national achievement tests in city public schools. This led to Chicago being denied their part of the massive $1.3 billion federal aid to schools program.

 

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President Lyndon B. Johnson (r.) meets with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in the White House, April 21, 1966, in a photograph by Yoichi Okamoto (1915-1985).

Yet the overall strong Mayor Daley-President Johnson alliance in late 1965 saw that money restored within the week – and the federal official who had cited Daley’s public schools for contempt of Federal segregation mandates swiftly demoted. It was into this political hothouse that Dr. King decided to build a civil rights campaign for open housing, jobs, and educational opportunity for African-Americans which in October 1965 Daley announced he welcomed with open arms. At the same time Daley was mobilizing black and other elected officials in Chicago to establish their own community action programs to sideline or co-opt any of King’s anticipated civil rights efforts which came to be called the “Chicago Freedom Movement.”

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Tina Allen, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 2004, 1219 West 76th Street, Chicago. Sculptor and painter Tina Allen (1950-2008) created a number of monumental sculptures of prominent blacks, including labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), abolitionist Sojourner Truth (d. 1883), author Alex Haley (1921-1992), South African President Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) and life-size sculptures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the University of Texas at Austin and in the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza in North Las Vegas. Allen spent her early years in the West Indies and was a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York and the University of South Alabama, and did advanced studies at Pratt Institute and in Venice, Italy. She worked in Los Angeles until her death. Of her sculptures she stated during a 2003 interview, “I’m looking at myself as speaking about the heart and soul of a people, and making sure they’re not forgotten, making sure they don’t feel ignored.”

SOURCES: Martin Luther King, Jr. with profiles of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Lori Meek Schuldt, World Book, Inc., 2007; American Pharaoh, Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, Little, Brown and Company, 2000; Civil Rights Digital Library – http://crdl.usg.edu/events/watts_riots/?Welcome. On Tina Allen – http://chicagopublicart.blogspot.com/2013/09/dr-martin-luther-king-jr-bust.html. On the CCCO- – http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0110/photo_essay.jsp?page=3.

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic  or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.

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