Touchdown in Chi-town: Martin Luther King sought to improve housing in '66

By Jelani Scott

With each passing year, it almost becomes too easy to forget about the contributions of the great leaders that were instrumental in molding the way our society is today. On holidays such the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, people often look at it first as third day of a long weekend and, aside from a special program or morning march, that's essentially it.

It is common for us to first look to King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington to draw inspiration and knowledge from and about the iconic civil rights leader, but there is so much more work attributed to his name than just this. Many people are unaware that some of his most significant work occurred 50 years ago in an area not usually associated with the pioneer.

When asked about what 1966 felt like, Washington, D.C. native and current resident Yvonne Williams, 73, said it felt like a "regrouping" year following King's heavy involvement in South in a movement that struck a chord with most of the country.

"Down here in D.C., we really didn't hear that much about him [after Selma]," said Williams, who at that time was working at the Federal Power Commission, now known as the Department of Energy.

Nineteen sixty-six was a pivotal year for King as he further showcased the extent of his reach by leading the ambitious Northwestern civil rights campaign known as the Chicago Freedom Movement. Accompanied by Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader James Bevel and Coordinating Council of Community Organizations leader Al Raby, King was determined to improve the living conditions in Chicago for its African-American citizens. The movement sought to neutralize the slums in the city and eliminate housing and school discrimination.

The campaign went a long way in proving that non-violence could enact social change outside of the South. Tensions began to increase throughout the country following the Watts Riots of 1965 in California and activist Stokely Carmichael declaring early in the year that there was a need for "black power," which opposed King's approach. Chicago provided the perfect stage for King and his associates to ease some of these tensions by helping their poverty-stricken brethren.

"And I contend that the cry of 'black power' is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro," King told CBS' Mike Wallace in a September 1966 interview in response to Carmichael and rising tensions.

"I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years."

On July 10, 1966, King held a "Freedom Sunday" rally in front of a crowd of 45,000 inside Chicago's Soldier Field. Five days later, according to Stanford's King Encyclopedia, Chicago's mayor and King reached an agreement on "new programs in recreation for Chicago blacks, a committee to study police relations with citizens and closer cooperation between the black community and police."

By the end of July into August, the movement spawned a number of rallies outside of real estate offices and marches into all-white neighborhoods throughout the city. During one protest, King was struck in the head by a rock hurled by one of the white opposition members and fell to the ground. Shortly following this incident, King said, "I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate."

In August, negotiations began between city leaders, movement activists, and members of the Chicago Real Estate Board and by the end of the month, an agreement consisting of positive steps towards more housing opportunities being provided was reached. Despite these small victories, however, King and his team were unable to make the immediate change they wanted for Chicago.

"Mayor Richard J. Daley wanted to keep the city segregated, because it guaranteed that middle-class whites didn't flee to the suburbs," wrote Edward McClelland in a 2012 NBC Chicago article. "Rep. William Dawson, the black overlord of the South Side, also wanted to keep the city segregated, because the ghetto guaranteed him a captive political base,"

Although the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement didn't pay dividends that year, the 1968 Fair Housing Act justified the work. Passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson following King's assassination, the act afforded equal housing opportunities for all people and made it a federal crime to "by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone ... by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin."

The writer is a student in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

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