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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.