REVEREND MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND THE CHICAGO FREEDOM MOVEMENT: 1966 AND THE START OF THE CAMPAIGN.

By John P. Walsh

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King installed themselves into a West Side apartment in a low-income Chicago neighborhood on January 26, 1966. From the outset the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and their allies were political outsiders in Chicago and mainly sought an amenable agreement with the established political powers in a city embodied by its mayor since 1955,  Richard J. Daley.  In the middle of another brutal Chicago winter King humbly began his campaign by stating he was looking to study the city’s social conditions. Yet King wanted to know which nonviolent campaign tactics – whether street marches, voter registration drives, rallies, fund raisers, or something else – would be effective to progress the objectives of job creation, open housing,  educational opportunity for African-Americans and, by summer of 1966, slum clean-up and a citizen’s review board for police brutality and misconduct.

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Martin Luther King Jr. and wife Coretta Scott King after moving into an apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin Avenue in Chicago on January 26, 1966. King moved into the tenement apartment to highlight segregated housing conditions in Chicago and launch a campaign to end slums in the city. — Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1966.

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With furniture provided from local second-hand stores, Martin and Coretta Scott King are pictured on the first day in their Chicago Lawndale apartment on 1550 S. Hamlin Avenue. This first action by King in Chicago in January 1966 gained national media attention to publicize the conditions of Chicago slum apartments. Photograph by John Tweedle.

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Martin Luther King Jr. helps remove a window frame while renovating an apartment at 1321 S. Homan Avenue in Chicago in 1966. The SCLC and CCCO with the Westside Federation became extralegal “trustees” of this building with tenants paying their rent to the SCLC, which used the money to make repairs. Male tenants of the building were hired as laborers and paid King’s proposed new minimum wage, $2.00 per hour. (The minimum wage in 1966 was $1.25). King told Betty Washington, a reporter for the Defender, that the experiment of taking over that building would give Freedom Movement leaders insight into “the kind of social planning that might reverse this trend of degradation of our nation’s cities and contribute to the kind of community awareness that will bring new life and new hope to the slums of this city.” Photograph by Luigi Mendicino, Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1966.

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Coretta Scott King at the Homan Avenue tenement in Chicago in 1966 that her husband’s campaign had taken control of and worked to repair. It was less than 5 minutes by car from the King home on Hamlin.

 

Baby Scratch My Back written and performed by “swamp blues” singer Slim Harpo (1924-1970) was a number one hit playing on the radio in 1966.

As King spoke about a “closed society” in Chicago, the elected political power structure out of the Mayor’s office maintained an omnipotent grip on city services while a vicious circle of poverty in some black neighborhoods, complicated by those citizens’ inability to live in certain of Daley’s “city of neighborhoods,” was permitted to exist. King’s outsider status – which at first was seen as a useful factor among Chicago’s civil rights activists – also worked to undermine King’s effectiveness in Chicago throughout 1966. Unfamiliar with Chicago’s vast size and crazy-quilt demographics, opposition to King’s efforts didn’t always fall neatly along racial lines. Whether white or black, resentment of the Atlanta-based minister in Chicago usually always came from his being viewed as an interloper and power rival.

Dr. Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., of which Mahalia was Official Soloist, delivers the eulogy at Chicago funeral.

Dr. Joseph H. Jackson (1905-1990), president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., and pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago was bitterly opposed to the Chicago Freedom Movement and made rancorous attacks against Dr. King while he was in Chicago. In 1963 Dr. Jackson was booed off the stage with Mayor Daley at an NAACP rally in Grant Park.

Support from Chicago black ministers, a natural political base for King in 1966, was frequently blunted by intimidating reminders from City Hall that a certain church would have its building or fire code inspection forthcoming.  Moreover, big cities across the nation, including Chicago, were to receive a huge infusion of funds out of Washington including part of a new $2.3 billion anti-slum program (about 17 billion in 2015 dollars) which was a component of a panoply of programs earmarked for Johnson’s Great Society. King was politely pressured to forego his futile efforts of meetings and trash drives so to allow the Chicago mayor to get down to the serious work of eliminating city slums by, as Daley announced, no later than the end of 1967. Daley’s home-court advantage and enormous financial support from the U.S. president and a Democratic Congress gave Dr. King’s limited civil rights operation among the poor and dispossessed an appearance of meddling, if not outright superfluity. Tactically Daley tried to match King’s organizational efforts on every front  often  by simply buying off King’s allies. When King filled the International Amphitheatre on Halsted Street on March 12, 1966 with 12,000 black celebrities and supporters,  Daley led 70,000 marchers (and 350,000 spectators) in the 1966 St. Patrick’s Day parade on State Street.

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Mayor Richard Daley leading the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on State Street in 1963.

After the SCLC took a supra-legal action to seize a dilapidated tenement building, Daley limited his response and left King to deal with the consequent legal and public relations headaches. King was not naïve about his own position, but did not want the Chicago Freedom Movement to become politicized. That Daley had a mayoral primary in February 1967 (he ran unopposed) for a fourth four-year term led some King allies in Chicago to lobby for a candidate to coalesce around the movement and run against him. But King refused the idea. Still, Daley’s ongoing work in 1966 to limit King’s efforts in Chicago tamped down King’s initial hope that this Irish-American big city northern mayor would risk or trade his political power for the 1964 Nobel peace prize winner’s agenda for social justice and civil rights for African-Americans. Daley’s selective embrace of King never offset the mayor’s strategy to restrain the civil rights leader’s efficacy in Chicago and link that individual restraint to curbing broad voter acrimony towards the Daley administration.

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Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. discusses fair housing with Gilbert Balin, of G. Balin Inc. real estate agents in Chicago. King and the SCLC launched a campaign to end slums in the city, which would become known as the Chicago Freedom Movement. — Jack Mulcahy, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 3, 1966.

Notwithstanding Daley’s defensive efforts, King did not lose sight of his message of improved housing, education and economic development for African-Americans in Chicago. One SCLC initiative that scored quick success was a project started in February 1966 headed by Rev. Jesse Jackson called Operation Breadbasket (later renamed Operation PUSH). Within months there were several hundred new black hires in Chicago-area businesses by way of this action.

Jackson_Operation_BreadbasketJackson at an unidentified Operation Breadbasket event, May 9, 1970. Photo by Chris Holmes.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson at an Operation Breadbasket event, May 9, 1970. Photo by Chris Holmes.

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Beyond the Hamlin ‘trusteeship’ and Operation Breadbasket, King spent those first late winter and early spring months in Chicago getting to know the city and formulating a plan. He visited with black and white leaders including the powerful mayor, Richard M. Daley, and the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad. He also worked to convert gang members to the philosophy of non-violence and met with a large variety of community groups. Here he walks with members of the East Garfield Park Community Organization. Photograph by John Tweedle.

King’s prolonged presence in Chicago in 1966 could take credit for prompting Mayor Daley to establish new city programs and hold various “summits” with clergy, labor and business leaders to combat poverty and racism in the city. In August 1966, Daley, with the support of the Chicago Freedom Movement, accepted the departure of public schools Chief Benjamin Willis and appointment of James F. Redmond, a racial progressive even though Daley overlooked two black candidates and considered only white men for the post. One thing Dr. King considered a key effort to improve African-American lives in the ghetto was to transform gang members into nonviolent civil rights activists. But a gunfight at a SCLC meeting in May 1966 between Blackstone Rangers and East Side Disciples seemed to end the official engagement. Meanwhile, Richard J. Daley continued his downtown redevelopment and in March 1966 announced a $200 million package for mass transit making sure the Civic Federation, a good government watchdog group, was there to endorse it. In addition to Loop and North Michigan Avenue redevelopment Daley dedicated in May 1966 the Civic Center, soon to be graced by an iconic Picasso sculpture the very next year. Now the long, hot days of a Chicago summer were at the doorstep and many wondered to what extent Dr. King’s plans in 1966 might add to the heat.

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King’s apartment in 1966 at 1550 South Hamlin Avenue in Chicago was damaged during the riots that followed his assassination on April 4, 1968 and eventually demolished. The site was a vacant lot until the construction in 2011 of Dr. King Legacy Apartments designed by the architecture firm Johnson + Lee. The $18 million, 45-apartment complex features commercial spaces along 16th Street, including a new home forf the Fair Housing Exhibit Center.

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Painted mural of the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his tenement apartment on Hamlin in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood by nationally-renowned Afro-Indian muralist, Paul Collins. It is the centerpiece of the Fair Housing Exhibit Center.

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.On Hamlin trusteeship  -http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0110/photo_essay.jsp?page=6.

©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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