Chicago and Martin Luther King, Jr: What Can We Learn?
by Mary Lou Finley
It was June of 1965, just three months after the march across the Selma bridge, when I headed for Chicago, a newly-minted graduate of Stanford University. I had desperately wanted to work in the South for the civil rights movement during my college years, but one thing and another got in the way—mostly my parents’ objections. I was, however, determined that when I graduated, I would find a way. Meanwhile, one of my college classmates from our Methodist church group, two years older and already in Chicago as a volunteer for the West Side Christian Parish’s social gospel ministry, urged me to come to Chicago instead. The Parish had just hired a key leader of the Selma campaign and he would soon be on his way to Chicago.
That was it. I was going to Chicago.
By September I was asked to serve as the secretary to the project director, just arrived from Selma. Dr. King sent a dozen staff people, mostly also in their early twenties, from the South to Chicago, and they moved into the Project House where I was living with other Parish volunteers. Suddenly there I was, in the thick of everything!
I had grown up in Port Angeles, which I found to be a beautiful place, but also rather dull and “out of it.” When I found myself in Chicago that fall, I felt like I had finally landed in the midst of the kind of excitement and commitment to social justice that I had been seeking!
We plunged into trying to make sense out of life on the West Side of Chicago, then inhabited by many recent African American migrants from Mississippi, where jobs in the cotton fields had suddenly dried up. We found abominable housing conditions, with apartments chopped up into tiny spaces where several families lived in “kitchenettes” in what had been a four room apartment, with leaking plumbing, peeling paint, and children suffering from acute lead poisoning from the lead paint peeling off the walls. African Americans lived there because rigid housing segregation, maintained by the Chicago Board of Realtors, made it impossible for them to find homes in neighborhoods with better housing. The grocery stores sold Grade B eggs at the same price as the eggs I would have bought at home, the city’s rat control program seemed to somehow skip over the neighborhood, leaving mothers to sometimes stay up all night to keep the rats from biting their babies.
In our intensive staff meetings, we learned nonviolence from James Bevel, the project director newly-arrived from the South, and we learned about what we would now call institutionalized racism in Chicago housing, jobs, and neighborhoods, and Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine. We saw all of these forces as connected, in what we called then, a form of “internal colonialism,” and decided to call our campaign the movement to End Slums.
Martin Luther King, Jr. moved into a West Side slum apartment to dramatize his solidarity with those suffering from these horrible housing conditions. (The first night he and Reverend Andrew Young stayed there, a cold night in January, I ended up delivering extra blankets to them and bringing Chicago barbeque to them at Dr. King’s request!)
We organized tenants into tenant unions, and urged them to go on rent strike to protest the terrible housing conditions. At one point we had 45 buildings owned by one slum landlord on rent strike. Jesse Jackson organized a group of ministers to call for more and better jobs for African Americans in the local grocery stores, and organized boycotts when store owners refused. As we tried to think about a summer direct action campaign to dramatize these issues, we called for an Open City, and decided to begin the campaign with Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a march from Soldier Field to City Hall to post the movement’s demands on the door of City Hall. We began with a call for open housing: ending housing discrimination in Chicago’s white neighborhoods.
When we began marching in those white neighborhoods, protesting realtors who refused to show the decent and inexpensive housing there to African Americans, we were met with massive hostility, which Martin Luther King declared was worse than anything he had seen in the South. I was on those first few marches, where locals threw bricks and bottles at us, yelled obscenities, and at one point pushed a dozen cars into the local lagoon. It was frightening, but also horrifying to see the anger and meanness from what could have been welcoming neighbors.
Eventually that summer, there were some modest victories. The landlord whose 45 buildings were on rent strike finally agreed to meet with us (three days after Martin Luther King, Jr. led thousands of people to march on City Hall) and agreed to a landlord-tenant collective bargaining agreement which gave tenants the right to withhold rent until repairs were made. Mayor Daley, who was very distressed by the open housing marches, agreed to meet with the movement leadership, and a “Summit Agreement” was reached, promising modest progress on housing discrimination issues. Jesse Jackson and the ministers in Operation Breadbasket won jobs from milk companies and supermarkets.
But it wasn’t until we began research for a book we recently completed on the impact of the Chicago campaign that I truly began to understand the impact of this movement—nearly 50 years later! This is not to say that institutionalized racism is gone from Chicago—far from it. But still, change did happen.
Tenant unions spread throughout Chicago, then to thirty cities across the US, and then the Chicago folks called a national meeting, forming the National Tenants Union. By 1972 landlord –tenant law began to change across the country, giving more rights to tenants, much like the rights we had won in that first collective bargaining agreement.
While we didn’t win a national fair housing law that summer, as Dr. King had hoped, Congress did pass the first national fair housing law on April 11, 1968, two years later (and just a week after Dr. King had been assassinated in Memphis.)
The local organization formed as a result of the Summit Agreement, called the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, worked for forty years in Chicago, suing landlords who discriminated, opening fair housing centers in the suburbs to assist African Americans who wanted to move closer to jobs, and eventually holding training sessions for realtors on how to treat their customers fairly. Chicago became, at least, less segregated.
Jesse Jackson’s work with Operation Breadbasket, opening up new job opportunities, and eventually new business opportunities for African Americans, foreshadowed affirmative action of the 1970s, all of which played a key role in strengthening the black middle class. And, the work Jesse Jackson did in Chicago laid the groundwork for his candidacy for President in 1984 and 1988. Even Barack Obama’s emergence onto the national political scene built on the growing black political power in Chicago over the decades following the Chicago movement.
However, the work that Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Chicago compatriots began back then, is not yet finished. Poverty, in particular, has in some sense worsened, as factory jobs left Chicago, wages declined, and jobs were few. Mass incarceration is a new form of institutionalized racism which we must now address. If Martin Luther King, Jr. were still with us, he would be right there, calling us to action once again.
What can we learn, then, from those days of fifty years ago, which might help us as we face into the issues of structural racism and so many other issues today? Here are a few thoughts:
Victories build slowly, and sometimes we who are nonviolent activists don’t even notice when victories we had been fighting for are won years later. I discovered that movements can be like relay races: one group carries the baton for awhile, then passes it to another, and by the time that victories are won, no one remembers who started the race in the first place. We need to learn to recognize our victories, even when they come much later, and to acknowledge all of those who helped carry on the work.
Nonviolence is a powerful tool, even when used imperfectly by imperfect people. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his senior staff were wise and experienced strategists, but the rest of us were new, young, excited, energetic, and committed, but also anxious, often in disagreement, sometimes confused, sometimes despairing. Yet in spite of our limitations, we were able to move the power structure of Chicago—and in some sense, the nation— with our nonviolent campaigns.
Finally, I still find inspiration in the clear vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. In his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, he said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” This is the place from which we must do our work, even today.
For more on these Chicago stories see our recent book, The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North, edited by Mary Lou Finley, Bernard LaFayette, James R. Ralph, Jr., and Pam Smith (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016).