By John P. Walsh
The first nonviolent civil rights campaign in the North led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) started in Chicago, Illinois, 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 Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) 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 a state in the north and in the nation’s second largest city was unexpected, provocative, and dangerous to the natural progression of the status quo.
The status quo in Chicago, at least in terms of its politics, was embodied in one man: Mayor Richard J. Daley (1902-1976). 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 chose to see it differently. There was no legal segregation in Chicago and Daley believed it was simply a “city of neighborhoods.” The 64-year-old Daley also felt that if government handouts were not downright un-American then, by 1965, big Federal programs should be administered at the local or city level and not from Washington.
While Daley’s home rule views appealed to some Chicagoans, other Chicago neighborhoods stayed in flux. There had been a longstanding mistrust, for example, between poor West Side residents—most of whom were black and concentrated by the mid1960’s into a vast ghetto—and a largely white Chicago police and fire departments. In the summer of 1965 street riots in West Garfield Park effectively produced the integration of 40 of 132 firehouses where calls for integration had been resisted since the early 1950’s.
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. In October 1965 Willis defied federal mandates for the release of requested materials as well as blocked the use of new national achievement tests in city public schools. This led to Chicago being temporarily denied their part of the massive $1.3 billion federal aid to schools program.
The overall Mayor Daley-President Johnson alliance was strong in late 1965 and the federal aid money called into question was restored within the week. Further, the federal official who had cited Daley’s public schools for contempt of Federal segregation mandates was 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.
Meanwhile Daley was also mobilizing local black and other elected officials in Chicago to establish their own community action programs to co-opt or sideline any of King’s anticipated civil rights initiatives and efforts. This important time when Dr. King came to live and work in Chicago from January to August 1966 and its immediate legacy came to be called the “Chicago Freedom Movement.”
It was on Wednesday, January 26, 1966, that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King installed themselves into a West Side apartment in a low-income Chicago neighborhood on the West Side.
At the outset the SCLC and their allies were political outsiders in Chicago and mainly sought an amenable agreement with the established political powers in a city embodied by 63-year-old Richard J. Daley, its mayor since 1955.
In the middle of the 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 that the Irish-American big city northern mayor would risk or trade political power for King’s agenda of social justice and civil rights on behalf of the city’s African-Americans —historically a full third of the population —was mostly dashed 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; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006; 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. On Hamlin trusteeship -http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0110/photo_essay.jsp?page=6.
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