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 cold and brutal Chicago winter King humbly began his campaign by stating that he was looking to study the city’s social conditions.
King wanted to know which nonviolent campaign tactics—whether it was 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.
“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 as a vicious circle of poverty in some black neighborhoods was permitted to exist. It was complicated by the Mayor’s assertions that there “were no ghettos” in Chicago though Black citizens were de facto restricted to living in only certain of Daley’s “city of neighborhoods.”
King’s outsider status—which at first was understood as a mostly useful factor among Chicago’s civil rights activists—also worked to undermine King’s effectiveness in Chicago throughout 1966.
King and his circle were unfamiliar with Chicago’s vast size and complicated demographics. Also, perhaps unexpectedly, opposition to King’s efforts didn’t always fall cleanly along racial lines.
Whether coming from whites or Blacks, resentment to the Atlanta-based minister in Chicago usually always revolved around his being viewed as an interloper and potential power rival.
Support from Chicago Black ministers, a natural political base for King, was frequently blunted in 1966 by intimidating reminders from City Hall that this or that certain church would be having its building or fire code inspection coming up.
Moreover, big cities across the nation, including Chicago, were looking to receive a huge influx of money out of Washington, D.C. including part of a new $2.3 billion anti-slum program (about 17 billion in 2015 dollars). This huge infusion of money to Chicago was part of programs marking President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”
King was politely pressured by city officals to forego what could only be seen as futile and time-wasting efforts of meetings and trash drives so to allow the Chicago mayor and his allies 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 Democratic U.S. president and Congress gave Dr. King’s civil rights operation among the poor and dispossessed an appearance of superfluity, if not outright meddling.
Tactically, on every front, Daley tried to match King’s organizational efforts often by simply buying off King’s allies.
When King filled the International Amphitheatre on South Halsted Street with 12,000 Black celebrities and supporters on March 12, 1966 for a rally, Daley led 70,000 marchers and 350,000 spectators down State Street in the St. Patrick’s Day parade a few days later.
After the SCLC took a supra-legal action to seize a dilapidated tenement building, Daley limited his response which left King to deal with all the legal and public relations headaches.
King was not naïve about his own position. He did not want the Chicago Freedom Movement to become politicized. Daley had a mayoral primary in February 1967— he was running unopposed for a fourth four-year term. Some King allies in Chicago wanted an opposition candidate to coalesce around the Chicago Freedom Movement and run against the Boss mayor.
King refused the idea. despite the political leeway, Daley worked continuously in 1966 to limit and even sideline King’s efforts in Chicago. King’s hope was dashed that the Irish-American big city northern mayor would risk or trade political power King’s agenda of social justice and civil rights for the city’s African-Americans which were historically a full third of the population in 1966.
Daley’s selective embraces of King never offset the mayor’s overall strategy to restrain the civil rights leader’s efficacy in Chicago. At the same time Daley did not want his restraint of King to impact or curb the broad voter support that the Daley administration had.
Regardless of Daley’s defensive efforts, King did not lose sight of his message of improved housing, education and economic development for African-Americans in Chicago. At this still early juncture of his time in Chicago, KIng carried on with his own civil rights campaign leaving any direct confrontation with Mayor Daley for the future.
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.
King’s months-long presence in Chicago in 1966 could also be credited for prompting Mayor Daley to establish new city programs. Daley also hosted various “summits” with clergy, labor and business leaders with the agenda to combat poverty and racism in Chicago.
In August 1966, Daley, with the support of the Chicago Freedom Movement, accepted the departure of public schools Chief Benjamin Willis and the appointment of James F. Redmond, a racial progressive. Still, Daley considered only white men for the post and overlooked two qualified Black candidates.
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. When a gunfight at a SCLC meeting in May 1966 broke out between Blackstone Rangers and East Side Disciples that appeared to end King’s official initiative in this direction.
Meanwhile, Richard J. Daley continued his downtown redevelopment. In March 1966 Daley announced a $200 million package for mass transit and made 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 the iconic Picasso sculpture in 1967.
Now the long, hot days of a Chicago summer were at the doorstep. Many in the city wondered in 1966 to what extent Dr. King’s plans might add to the heat.
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.
If you liked this blog article, PART 2 – Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Start of the Campaign: the Chicago Freedom Movement in Early 1966 links to Part 1 and Part 3 in the series are provided here: