Tag Archives: Civil Rights and Human Rights

The March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963: an account of the 72-minute post-march meeting of 8 civil rights leaders with President Kennedy at the White House.

Sensing a national breakthrough for civil rights, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined civil rights leaders to plan a March on Washington for Wednesday, August 28, 1963. The great march filled the VIP section at the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall to past the Washington Monument, a distance of almost one mile. The March on Washington is remembered for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the massive crowd’s hopeful jubilation. The meeting with President Kennedy was more than a polite courtesy call to the White House–it helped coordinate political strategy for the movement that would have concrete ramifications for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 following Kennedy’s death.

By John P. Walsh

President John F. Kennedy watched the march—and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech—from the White House on television. Both Kennedy and King were young men—King was 34 years old, Kennedy was 46 years old. Though mature beyond their years, each American proffered green oak in some ways—Kennedy was especially more personally sensitive than his “cool” public persona belied him to be. King, too, was mostly uncomfortable that day with the particular attention, from the media and others, that he was receiving for his remarks at the Lincoln Memorial. As the civil rights leaders filed into the Cabinet Room at the White House the first thing Kennedy said when he took King’s hand was “I have a dream…” reiterating the line that immediately impressed the president when he heard it a short time earlier live on TV. King deflected the president’s compliment and immediately asked him what he thought of United Automobile Workers president Walter Reuther’s excellent speech which included criticizing Kennedy for defending freedom around the world but not always at home. Kennedy said: “Oh, I’ve heard [Walter] plenty of times.”

Civil Rights leaders in this group photograph at the Lincoln Memorial followed-up the March on Washington with a visit to the White House to meet President Kennedy. Seated left to right: National Urban League executive director Whitney Young (1921-1971); chairman of the Demonstration Committee Cleveland Robinson (1914-1995); labor union leader A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979); Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Roy Wilkins (1901-1981).

Standing left to right: director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Matthew Ahmann (1931-2001); Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1998); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader John Lewis (1940-2020); Protestant minister Eugene Carson Blake (1906-1985); Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leader Floyd McKissick (1922-1991); labor union leader Walter Reuther (1907-1970).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Following the successful march for jobs and freedom, civil rights leaders went to the White House to visit with President Kennedy and pushed measures to strengthen the Civil Rights bill.

King and Kennedy hardly talked more during the visit, though when they did it led to an outcome for action. Rather, Kennedy and Roy Wilkins talked at length about strengthening the civil rights bill following the success of that day’s completely peaceful march. King moved down the line away from the president and near to then-23-year-old John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

One section to the bill these activists wanted the president to add was a ban on employment exclusion based on race. Around that White House photo op in August 1963, among other things, they cited to the president the coming of increasing automation in the job market that would depress the availability of jobs. In that macro socio-economic light, they also discussed the plight of the inner city. They told Kennedy that Black teenagers were dropping out of school in epidemic numbers. The president was told by A. Philip Randolph that this entire generation of young blacks “had no faith” in whites, black leadership, government or God. American society meant nothing to them but despair.

During the visit, Kennedy was also lobbied to re-insert into the act a section that was stripped in 1957 giving authority to the Attorney General to investigate and initiate lawsuits on behalf of blatant civil rights infringements.

President Kennedy responded that with Robert Kennedy, his Attorney General, he had looked into the joblessness and school drop-out rate among Blacks in New York City and Chicago. On August 28, 1963, Kennedy encouraged the civil rights leaders to have the Black community do more. “It seems to me, ” the president said, “with all the influence that all you gentleman have in the Negro community that we could emphasize…educating [your]children, on making them study, making them stay in school and all the rest.”

In regard to the proposed add-ons to the civil rights bill, the existing legislation was already on the brink of defeat in a Democrat-controlled Senate and too close to call in a Democrat-controlled House. Wilkins countered that the Speaker of the House assured him that a stronger civil rights bill could pass the House and work to pressure the Senate to act. If the president would lead a crusade to win approval from the voters for these civil rights measures he could go over the heads of the Congress who obstructed passage of the bill.

Kennedy replied frankly to the leaders that civil rights will and must be a bipartisan effort. For a Democrat president to lead a crusade would allow the Republicans to support civil rights but in the South blame the Democrats exclusively for it. Kennedy assured the civil rights leaders that “treacherous” political games were presently being played in the legislature by Republicans and Democrats on the bill. Kennedy was countered by Walter Reuther. “Look, you can’t escape this problem,“ the white labor leader said, “and there are two ways of resolving it—either by reason or riots. But now the civil war is not gonna be fought at Gettysburg, it’s gonna be fought in your backyard, in your plant, where your kids are growing up.” Reuther told JFK he didn’t much like the young president’s “seminar” style of governing where “you call a big meeting…and nothing happens.” Reuther, as he told JFK, preferred Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s approach where you “jawbone” it until you “get difficult things done.”

King stayed silent for most of the back and forth debate. When King finally spoke he asked JFK that if the sitting president led a crusade then perhaps his predecessor, Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, might get involved, and thus provide the bipartisan push. Kennedy snapped at King: “No, it won’t.” In reply, King made a knowing joke: “Doesn’t [President Eisenhower] happen to be in the other denomination?” Ike’s personal pastor, Rev. Eugene Blake, was in the Cabinet Room because Blake was the march’s only white speaker. One reason was that Rev. Blake, a powerful force and no pushover, had been arrested in a civil rights demonstration in Baltimore and had gone to jail. Just hours earlier, Rev. Blake orated: “We come late, late we come, in the reconciling and repentant spirit.” The Protestant clergyman embraced the march’s agenda of civil and economic rights for African Americans as well as an end to racism though he rejected words like “revolution” and “the masses” used by some civil rights activists as alien dogma.

At that day’s White House visit, Blake intimated to Kennedy that clearly Ike could be approached about civil rights. The president quickly pivoted and urged Ike’s pastor to visit the former president at his home in Gettysburg—“and include a Catholic and maybe a businessman or two”—to discover any political role Ike might be willing to take on for the civil rights bill. Then pointing to Reuther, Kennedy advised, “And leave Walter in the background.” Amid chuckles, Kennedy then left the room of civil rights leaders and assured them he would keep in touch in the months ahead.

SOURCES:

TAYLOR BRANCH, PARTING THE WATERS AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS 1954-1963. NEW YORK: SIMON & SCHUSTER, 1988.

DAVID GARROW, BEARING THE CROSS: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., AND THE SOUTHERN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE, WILLIAM MORROW AND COMPANY, 1986.

On August 28, 1963 about 250,000 peaceful protesters descended on Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history.

PHOTO CREDITS:

Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, D.C.’s, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963. Public Domain/U.S. Government Photo.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Leaders of the march posing in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial.) by Rowland Scherman (b. 1937), for the U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking from the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington by Rowland Scherman (b. 1937), for the U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Aerial view of Washington Monument showing marchers.) U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Leaders of the march leading marchers down the street. U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

PART 2 – Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Start of the Campaign: the Chicago Freedom Movement in Early 1966.

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.

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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 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.

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

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.

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Chicago Mayor Richard J. 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 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.

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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.

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.

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

After King’s death, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson headed up Operation Breadbasket. This is an event held on 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 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.

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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 for 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.

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: