Photo Essay - Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Chicago Freedom Movement

Martin Luther King comes to ChicagoPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

In 1966 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began an effort to challenge civil rights abuses in Chicago. This challenge was called the Chicago Freedom Movement. It marked the first effort by the SCLC and the southern Civil Right Movement to mount a sustained campaign in the urban North.

MLK speaks to public housing tenantsPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

The spark for the Chicago Freedom Movement was created in the summer of 1965 when King and the SCLC were invited to the city by the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). Here, King speaks to a crowd near the Robert Taylor and Stateway Gardens public housing projects during that visit.

Chicago civil rights leaders meet the pressPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

Led by former school teacher Albert Raby (left of King), the CCCO was a coalition of a number of disparate and sometimes contentious groups including the local branches of CORE, the Catholic Interracial Council, and the Urban League, among others. Here, King and Raby meet the Chicago press along with SCLC leader Bayard Rustin (right of King) and others.

Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King take up residence in a Chicago slumPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

King's first act in Chicago got national media attention. In January, he and Coretta Scott King moved into an apartment on 1550 S. Hamlin Ave., in the middle of Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood, with the intention of publicizing the conditions of slum apartments. That plan was foiled when the managers of the building discovered the identity of their new tenant. Within days (and reported in great detail in the city's black paper, the Chicago Defender), major repairs were made to the apartment and the building. The stove and refrigerator were replaced, new plumbing fixtures added, a toilet seat was provided where there had been none, and a light fixture where there had been exposed wires. In addition, part of the flooring was replaced and some of the walls replastered. Most importantly to a Chicago resident in the middle of the winter: the heating system was repaired. One tenant of the building was quoted in the Defender, January 24, 1966, "They even fixed my radiators. All I can say is thank the Lord he has come. I thank God he decided to move here." King and Coretta Scott King are pictured above on their first day in the apartment, which was furnished by SCLC and CCCO from local second-hand stores. The same day King met with police and toured the neighborhood. The couple also met with neighborhood children and six members of the Vice Lords gang stopped by for a visit.

A worker cleans up at 1321 S. Hamlin Ave.Courtesy of the Chicago Defender. Published February 24, 1966.

Shortly after his arrival in the city, King began his first experiment in methods to empower residents of the slums. In February, tenants at 1321 S. Hamlin came to King for help. The SCLC and CCCO together with the Westside Federation became extralegal 'trustees' of the building with the 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 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." In this image, King looks through a crawl space opening into the building's basement which workers are cleaning out.

Demonstration in East Garfield ParkPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

King's efforts to assist and empower tenants in poor neighborhoods continued throughout 1966. Here King talks with reporters during a demonstration against Balin Real Estate by the East Garfield Park Union to End Slums in November, 1966. The tenants' group had been staging a rent strike since September.

A young Jesse Jackson speaksPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

In addition to addressing poor housing conditions, in February the Chicago Freedom Movement also acted on inequalities in employment by bringing the SCLC's successful Operation Breadbasket to Chicago. Operation Breadbasket targeted companies that used discriminatory hiring practices. If the companies did not comply with demands for equitable hiring, then the black community would boycott them. The Chicago program was put under the leadership of a young seminary student named Jesse Jackson. Here, Jackson speaks at an unidentified church along with King (far right) and others.

King meets the East Garfield Park CommunityPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

Beyond the Hamlin 'trusteeship' and Operation Breadbasket, King spent his first 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.

Rally in Solider FieldPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

By July, the Chicago Freedom Movement had determined its main goals. It created a list of "fourteen basic goals aimed at making Chicago a racially open city." Movement leaders scheduled a huge rally and march to City Hall on July 10. Over 30,000 attended the rally in Soldier Field on that 98 degree day.

Marchers take over downtonPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

Afterwards, thousands marched through downtown Chicago.

Affixing demands to Chicago City HallPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

The march ended when the list of demands was nailed to the door of Chicago's City Hall. The demands were far reaching and included having real estate brokers make all listings public and banks make public statements of non-discriminatory mortgage policies. The city was to release a head count of all blacks, whites and Latin Americans in all city departments and for all firms from which city purchases were made. It was also to create a citizen review board for police brutality and unwarranted search and seizure cases. Addressing the issue of the slums were demands to pass an ordinance that would give the public access to names of property owners and investors in slum areas and increase the garbage collection, street cleaning and building inspections there. Demands directed at the Chicago Housing Authority included rehabilitating existing public housing, adding day care centers, and increasing the amount of scattered low cost housing for low and middle income families. The federal government was to raise the minimum wage to $2.00 per hour, pass the 1966 Civil Rights Act, enforce Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and monitor the non-discriminatory granting of loans by FDIC member banks.

Al Raby, Jesse Jackson, and James BevelPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

Two days after the July rally and march, King announced that the Chicago Freedom Movement would have a series of "Open City" marches through all-white Chicago or suburban neighborhoods. First, to ascertain where the marches would be held, real estate companies were approached by black and white couples. Each couple presented the exact same information such as income and educational background. Not surprisingly, most targeted real estate firms told the black couple that nothing was available, while the white couple was shown a variety of choices. Once the discriminatory practices of certain neighborhoods were confirmed, then marches to the offending real estate companies were scheduled. For the entire month of August protesters marched through a variety of Chicago and suburban neighborhoods including Gage Park, Marquette Park, Bogan, and Belmont-Cragin. In most cases, the marchers faced large crowds of epithet-screaming and sometimes brick-throwing whites. Here, movement leaders Al Raby (left), James Bevel (second from right) and Jesse Jackson (center) protest in front of the Chicago Real Estate Board in downtown Chicago.

King marches at South DeeringCourtesy of the Chicago Defender. Published August 1966.

King only attended two marches, Marquette Park on August 5 and South Deering (shown here) on August 21. During the Marquette Park march he was hit with a brick at the back of the neck. Afterwards he was famously quoted, saying "I have seen many demonstrations in the south but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I have seen here today." As the month wore on King was concerned that the violence at the marches was uncontrollable and would only get worse. In exchange for calling off all future marches, particularly a march scheduled for Cicero, a notoriously racist suburb of Chicago, King negotiated a deal with the Chicago Real Estate Board and the city. Robert Lucas, the Chicago chairman of CORE, and many others did not agree with King's decision and decided to hold the march anyway. On September 4, 1966, without King and members of the SCLC, Lucas and over 200 others marched through Cicero, Illinois. Ironically this was the most famous march of the summer. The end of the marching effectively ended the Chicago Freedom Movement.

Martin Luther King spent much of 1966 in ChicagoPhotograph by John Tweedle, courtesy of Dianne Tweedle.

Many have criticized the Chicago Freedom Movement as a failure: Most, if not all, of the agreements reached with city and real estate officials were never carried out, and the move to educate Chicago's gangs in non-violent protest did not lead to any long term change in gang violence in the city. While the Movement did not end the slums or halt discrimination in Chicago, it could claim some victories. By the end of the year, Operation Breadbasket had opened close to 200 new jobs for African Americans. Also, it continued on in Chicago, giving Jesse Jackson the first platform of his long career. In December, 1966, King, the SCLC, and the Community Renewal Foundation received a $4 million loan from HUD to rehab 500 units in Kenwood/Oakland, Lawndale, and East Garfield Park. Not least, the Chicago Freedom Movement led to the creation of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. Until it closed in 2004, the Council continued, through a variety of tactics, to challenge housing discrimination in Chicago. In addition, the city, state, and county all have individual laws protecting a number of vulnerable groups. These laws are enforced through specific government divisions created for the purpose, including the Commission on Human Relations, the city's enforcement division. These are also a legacy of King's time in Chicago.