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The Chicago Freedom Movement

Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North


Edited by Mary Lou Finley, Bernard Lafayette Jr., James R. Ralph, and Pam Smith


Civil Rights and Struggle Series

Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016

Hardcover. xiv+495 p. ISBN 978-0813166506. $45


Reviewed by Peter J. Ling

University of Nottingham



Chicago: Martin Luther King’s most relevant campaign?


The 1966 protest campaign waged by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Chicago has generally been judged less successful than the earlier southern campaigns, such as Selma and Birmingham. Selma had spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and has become so iconic that President Barack Obama felt compelled to attend the fiftieth anniversary celebrations at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2015. The Birmingham campaign, with its images of water cannon and attack dogs set upon children as young as ten years, remains central to the iconography of the 1960s. But the Chicago campaign is far less venerated, except perhaps by the people directly affected by it, some of whom carried forward a myriad of local initiatives that the campaign fuelled, even if it did not usually spark them. Judging by this new collection, there is much to honour and celebrate, but the fact that the civil rights bill of 1966 failed to secure passage, and that federal legislation against housing discrimination was not passed until immediately after King’s murder in 1968, tends to place the Chicago campaign as a watershed moment: the point at which King’s dreams became nightmares.

From the standpoint of the present era that has seen renewed activism with the “Black Lives Matter” Movement, the Chicago campaign bristles with relevance. The de jure segregation of public accommodations and formal disenfranchisement of the Jim Crow era may be gone, but the evils confronted in the 1966 campaign—employment and housing discrimination, inadequate schooling and welfare provision, police brutality and institutional racism—continue to make African American lives harsher on average than those of their white American counterparts. The challenge of providing economic opportunities in the inner city that can compete in the short term with the market for drugs and other illegal commodities remains. The concentration of the African American poor in residential districts that have substandard housing and inequitable rents and its parallel, the de facto segregation of schools are still evident. After decades of vindictive welfare cuts, the ability of poor African American families to provide for their children by some measures has diminished. Chicago today remains a city where African American lives seem cheap and precarious, judging by the murder rate and the incidence of police killing of black suspects. A conspicuous gulf remains between the brutalities of life in the gang-infested ghettos and that enjoyed in the chic Lakeside neighborhoods. Given the persistence of such evils, one could conclude that Martin Luther King’s declared war on slums in 1966 ended in emphatic defeat. But this collection offers a rebuttal to such blunt judgements.

The book grew out of the fortieth-anniversary commemoration of King’s campaign in 2006. Some of the event’s activist-participants contribute to the volume, not just in the chapter labelled “In Their Own Voices,” but in many other sections. Some of them are internationally famous, like the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., who launched his career essentially through his management of Chicago’s Operation Breadbasket program in 1966. Jackson’s contribution to the present volume is best appreciated if you can read it in the cadences of his sonorous speeches. Other activists are well known to movement scholars, such as Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) veteran, Bernard Lafayette, who alongside Jim Bevel was one of the prime reasons King chose Chicago for his northern campaign, or Mary Lou Finley, who worked as Bevel’s secretary during the campaign, and Bill Moyer of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), who was already working to desegregate housing in the North Shore suburbs in the summer of 1964. Lafayette and his wife, Colia, were still working on voter registration in Selma at that stage, and the volume shows how the venerated southern campaigns and the recently re-discovered northern movement intersected. The connection was often personal and the AFSC was one vital network. When Lafayette mentions that the people who recommended him to the AFSC were the Reverend James Lawson (mentor of the Nashville students’ movement and star of SNCC’s founding conference in 1960), and Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (the man sent to Montgomery in 1956 to check out a young preacher called Martin Luther King, and to keep an eye on the dangerously flamboyant Bayard Rustin),—well, one gets a sense of how the evolving movement fitted together. Lafayette has recently written a memoir,(1) while white scholar-activist Finley has collaborated with the late Bill Moyer on an important guide to social movements that promoted “movement action plans,” or MAPs, an organizing model that Moyer developed in the 1980s.(2) The latter’s ability to draw larger lessons from movement history will make this volume useful to sociologists as well as historians and Finley and Moyer illustrate how the Chicago campaign fits into the intellectual history of social activism since the Sixties.

The editors have faced the common challenge of taking a moment in a long history and telling it in a way that identified its singularities as well as its commonalities with what came before and after. They make a sterling effort to contextualize the campaign. The first Great Migration from the South in the 1910s had created the South Side ghetto of Chicago amidst rising racial tensions that climaxed in the notorious 1919 race riot, centred on the stockyard district. Among the white assailants were members of the local, ethnic social clubs such as the Hamburg Athletic Club, which, despite its name, was predominantly Irish-American. The then seventeen-year-old Richard Daley, future mayor and boss of the city belonged to the Hamburg. In the aftermath of street fighting that left 38 dead, new zoning laws formally segregated housing and job restrictions ensured that black and whites worked separately in the stockyards and other industries. Segregation was seen by Wilsonian progressives as a remedy that avoided unregulated racial encounters, and contrary to the master narrative, the Jim Crow system was never solely a southern phenomenon.(3) The inter-war depression that devastated the southern cotton economy ensured that the population flow from the Deep South to Chicago continued and swelled into a flood during the 1940s, ensuring that the South Side ghetto was joined by a burgeoning West Side one.(4) By the mid-1950s, when Chicago teenager Emmett Till was murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi, the state of race relations in the Windy City was reflected in the vigilante violence that greeted African American families who tried to move into white neighborhoods and by the determination with which the city’s school board policed the catchment areas of schools to ensure that African Americans were corralled in ghetto schools, even if this meant running classes into the evening in black schools, while desks stood empty in white schools affected by suburban out-migration. By the early 1960s, local groups were protesting the substandard and unequal treatment of black Chicagoans in education, and the way in which their exclusion from white residential districts reinforced inequality.(5)

The opening sections of The Chicago Freedom Movement make clear the grievances that spurred the local movement before King’s arrival and the multiple campaigns that preceded it. However, on balance the events of 1966 are not seen as a culmination in this collection. As its introduction makes clear, it seeks to prompt a reconsideration of King’s campaign by demonstrating that it had “a substantial impact” with “significant consequences in many areas: tenant rights, black political power, fair housing, and community development in poor communities, to name a few” [3]. During the campaign, for instance, SCLC organized tenant unions to try to provide protection from rapacious landlords. Ultimately, if not immediately, this produced a significant improvement in legal protection that sought to equalize the bargaining position of landlord and tenant, set minimum standards of habitability for rented properties, and establish procedures for the handling of grievances that allowed tenants to withhold rent if the landlord failed to maintain the property and prevented retaliatory evictions.(6) By 2009 only North Dakota of the fifty states had no landlord-tenant law, and most states had legislation modelled on proposals that grew out of Chicago experience [195-198].

During the 1950s, the Daley political machine effectively eliminated the Republicans as a force in city politics, despite their continued strength in Illinois itself. Boss Richard Daley came to epitomize so-called “machine” politics that traded patronage jobs, investment opportunities, and government services in the manner previously associated with New York’s Tammany Hall. With white flight and suburban growth outside the city limits, Daley faced a growing challenge in the 1960s: how could he retain the loyalty of his white ethnic supporters as well as his African American ones? White working-class voters demanded the maintenance of the color line to protect property values, employment privileges (especially in the building trades), and de facto school segregation. The burgeoning inner city black population demanded better housing, jobs, and schools. African American elected councilmen remained so silent and loyal to Daley that the districts they represented were referred to as the “plantation wards.” Despite growing black dissatisfaction, Daley retained control until his death in 1976. Challenging the machine, Mayor Jane Byrne made bold promises to black voters to secure election, but failed to deliver, leaving the way open for the election of Chicago’s black mayor Harold Washington in 1983.(7) But while this symbolic victory can be traced back to the 1966 campaign, as Jesse Jackson asserts [251], the growth of black political power in electoral terms has never stood in a simple or direct relationship with African American militancy. In celebrating the importance of King’s campaign in the city, the volume perhaps inevitably fails to capture the contradictory strands within black politics or to acknowledge how sharp have been the disappointments for those African Americans who have placed their hopes in black candidates, including state senator, US senator and President Barack Obama.

Leonard Rubinowitz makes clear the contradictory relationship between electoral and protest politics in his essay on the Chicago Freedom Movement and the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 [115-130]. Put simply, King’s 1966 campaign made the political tensions around the housing issue so acute in 1966 that it seemingly guaranteed the failure of the bill before Congress that fall. By mid-August 1966 the clashes on the streets of Chicago between white home-owners and open housing demonstrators had reached a pitch that threatened violence on a scale greater than the June and July disturbances in black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Mayor Daley obliged the real estate interests to negotiate with the movement, but the so-called Summit Agreement was founded on a voluntary code. As he did so, Daley complained about Martin Luther King over the phone to a sympathetic President Lyndon Johnson, who chose not to champion the 1966 bill in the way that he had earlier legislation. Republican minority leader, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who had played a crucial role in securing passage of LBJ’s previous civil rights proposals, opposed the fair housing measure in 1966 as a counterproductive intrusion of the state into the marketplace. The 1966 mid-term elections were widely read as a white backlash against radical black demands symbolized mainly by Stokely Carmichael’s call for Black Power, but also by King’s leadership of the Chicago campaign. Protest in 1966 seemed to work against electoral political gains either in terms of legislation passed or candidates elected. By 1968 Senator Dirksen had changed his mind on the housing bill, partly because he had come to believe that the spiralling urban unrest was sustained by housing inequalities, and the bill passed the Senate. In the House, it was less popular, but the Senate version was accepted in the aftermath of King’s assassination in April, largely due to the committee vote of Illinois Congressman John Anderson. Thus after slowing its passage, protest insurgency ultimately secured open housing legislation.

Politics can never be defined solely by protest and some of the far-reaching consequences of the Chicago campaign flow from legal battles and administrative actions that have also sometimes been seen as channels that function to pre-empt protest. Brian White, for instance, writes about the work of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities (LCMOC), a body that grew out of the committee of business, religious, and civic leaders that the Summit Agreement established to ensure fair housing. White acknowledges that many within the black community turned against the LCMOC in its early years and he admits that the LCMOC itself was unsure how best to tackle the discriminatory practices of realtors without alienating its own board members, who included prominent realtors. Some of its subsequent successes could be traced to vital changes in state legislation after the passage of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act, but other were more directly the outcome of local activism including testing realtor services for discrimination, training realtors, counselling the first minority families that moved into targeted communities, and litigating. The LCMOC filed over 1,500 lawsuits and its success rate was over 90 percent. White mentions that the LCMOC helped beneficiaries of the Gautreaux programs, measures put in place after the US Supreme Court ruled that the Chicago Housing Authority had failed to treat minority clients equally under the law. Named after Dorothy Gautreaux, the lead plaintiff in a class action suit launched in 1966, the court order was not made until 1976, by which stage Mrs. Gautreaux had already died. She is commemorated in a short essay in this collection, but those new to social activism might pay heed to the decade that elapsed, and that the remedy of scattering public housing has not been entirely successful even today. Certainly, the challenge of protecting African Americans from housing discrimination in both rental and mortgage markets remains; a challenge that the 2008 collapse of the subprime mortgage market devastatingly exposed.(8)

Overall, it is fair to say that the collection demonstrates how significantly the Chicago campaign connects to subsequent activism across a range of issues. Whether it is the wider issue of public health and environmental protection—captured here by Sherrilyn Bevel’s essay on the campaign against childhood lead poisoning—or the continuing work to re-direct the social networks of Chicago’s gangs to more constructive purposes that began with their recruitment as marshals during the 1966 open housing marches, The Chicago Freedom Movement is a book that underlines the expansive length of “the long civil rights movement.”

Much of the work inspired by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s essay has reflected the historian’s natural predilection for the rear-view mirror, linking the classic phase of the struggle to earlier efforts in the 1930s and 1940s especially.(9) But some of the most exciting new work takes the story to the 1970s, often demonstrating at the same time the interconnections between the supposedly divergent strands of Black Power and Freedom Now elements in the1960s struggle.(10) Like the larger literature, this volume has to walk a fine line between acknowledging that many of the problems identified as part of a cumulative cycle of inequality have deepened in the last half-century while celebrating the achievements of those who have organized against those problems. If the worst flaw of the orthodox, public master narrative has been its sense of closure—that Dr. King awoke the soul of America and historic evils were relegated to the past, the perils faced by the narrative’s challengers lie simultaneously in an over-romanticization of radical protest and a bleak depiction of the persistence of racial injustice into the second decade of the twenty-first century. The editors of this volume chose to end with an epilogue written by nonviolence trainer Jonathan Lewis, which draws on his experience within the Black Lives Matter movement. Lewis articulates the hope that nonviolence can address the triple evils of “poverty, racism and militarism” that King identified as the focus of his work in what proved to be his last two years. Lewis writes: “the signs are promising. Activists are in the fight for the long haul, and their demands are being heard” [440]. With Donald Trump in the White House, and the homicide total for Chicago standing at 413 for calendar year 2017 as I write, the scale of the haul seems more evident than the certainty of the promise. But by writing this volume, the contributors have added their voices to what needs to be an unceasing demand to be heard.


(1) Bernard Lafayette Jr with Kathryn L Johnson, in Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2013.

(2) Bill Moyer et al, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2001.

(3) The classic study of the 1919 riot is William M. Tuttle, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

(4) The creation of the West Side is explained in Arnold R. Hirsch, Making of the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960, Cambridge: University Press, 1983.

(5) On the Till murder, see Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, New York: Ballantine Books 2003. For the schools campaign, see Dionne Danns, Something Better for our Children: Black Organization in the Chicago Public Schools, 1963-1971, New York: Routledge, 2003, and Danns, Desegregating Chicago’s Public Schools: Policy Implementation, Politics and Protest, New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014.

(6) For a parallel account of tenant struggles in New York City, see Roberta Gold, When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. For a broader picture, see Stephen Grant Meyer, As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods, Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2000.

(7) For the Daley machine, see William Grimshaw, Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931-1991, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1992. For the election of Harold Washington, see Paul Kleppner, Chicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor, DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985 and Gary Rivlin, Fire on the Prairie: Harold Washington, Chicago Politics, and the Roots of the Obama Presidency, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.

(8) For the Gautreaux case, see Alexander Polikoff, Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing and the Black Ghetto, Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 2006.

(9) Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past, Journal of American History, 91:4 (March 2005) : 1233-1263. For a small sample of the literature that framed Hall’s long civil rights movement in relation to the pre-1950s decades, see Greta De Jong, African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900-1970, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002; Erik Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012 and Robert Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the mid-20th-century South, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003

(10) For connections to Black Power, see Peniel Joseph, ed. The Black Power Movement: Re-thinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era, New York: Routledge 2006; Nishani Frazier, Harambee City: The Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland and the Rise of Black Power Populism, Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 2017 and Jakobi Williams, From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.


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