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King In Chicago: Part 1

Excerpts from:
American Pharaoh
Mayor Richard J. Daley
His Battle for Chicago and the Nation

By Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor


Martin Luther King, who was by now leaning strongly toward bringing his movement north to Chicago, had his mind made up for him one sweltering summer night in Los Angeles. On August 11, 1965, a California highway patrolman pulled over a black man for what should have been a routine driving-while-intoxicated stop. But Watts, a northern-style ghetto set down among the palm trees of Southern California, responed by erupting in rioting . . .

The depth and breadth of the anger that set off the rioting struck him as a powerful argument for extending the civil rights movement to the rest of the country, and trying to improve the conditions of blacks in places like Watts.

. . .

The SCLC considered serveral large cities, including New York, for its historic journey north. But there were many compelling reasons for choosing Chicago. In terms of racial segregation, it was as bad as any major city, north or south. In 1959, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had called Chicago "the most residentially segregated large city in the nation." The racial separation that the Jim Crow system preserved by law, Chicago had simply achieved through other means: racial steering by real estate brokers; racially restrictive covenants on house sales; and the ever-present threat of violence if established racial boundaries were crossed . . . To King, Chicago was "the Birmingham of the North."

. . .

A decision was reached, but it was not unanimous. Some SCLC activists were skeptical about the movement's chances of succeeding in the north, and they did not agree that Chicago was hospitable terrain. At a meeting in Atlanta, Bayard Rustin and SCLC staffer Tom Kahn tried to persuade King he was underestimating the difficulty of prevailing in Chicago - and underestimating Daley. King had this naive faith that he could do in Chicago what he had done in the South, that he could reach down and inspire them, and so forth," says Kahn. "And Bayard kept saying, 'You don't know what you are talking about. You don't know what Chicago is like . . . You're going to get wiped out.'"

. . .

By fall of 1965, word spread that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would in fact be coming to Chicago that winter for a prolonged stay. Daley said he would be happy to meet with King whenever he wanted. "No one has to march to see the mayor of Chicago," Daley said jauntily. "The door is always open and I'm here 10 to 12 hours a day." And Daley insisted that he shared King's agenda. "I'm always happy to have help and assistance in resolving difficult problems of housing, education, and poverty," Daley said. "I would like to show Dr. King some of our fine installations." At the same time, Daley began mobilizing black machine politicians to undermine King's efforts in Chicago.

. . .

But if parts of Chicago reminded them of home, King and the SCLC staff quickly realized just how different this sprawling urban metropolis was from the South. It was far larger than the other cities they had organized campaigns in before - 10 times as large as Birmingham, and 100 times as large as Selma. Ralph Abernathy recalls how astonished he was the first time Jesse Jackson took him on a driving tour of Chicago. "As we drove through the South Side, where a large segment of the black population lived, we kept waiting for the slum tenements to give way to the warehouses, vacant lots, and then country stores and open fields where cows were grazing," he recalls. "Instead, we saw more slum blocks. And more. And more. We had a feeling that if we drove much farther south we were going to see the Gulf of Mexico. 'That's nothing,' said Jesse. 'Wait till you see the West Side.'" And to southerners used to a region where almost everyone fell into a simple category of "black" or "white," Chicago was a confusing array of Irish, Poles, Jews, Lithuanians, and other white ethnic groups.

Another thing the SCLC was unprepared for when it arrived in Chicago was the opposition it would face from significant parts of the black community. "Chicago was the first city that we ever went to as members of the SCLC staff where the black ministers and black politicians told us to go back where we came from," says Dorothy Tillman, then a young SCLC staff member from Alabama. "Dr. King would frequently say to me, 'You ain't ever seen no Negroes like this, have you Dorothy?' I would reply, 'No, Reverend.' He said, 'Boy if we could crack these Chicago Negroes we can crack anything.'" Some Chicago blacks professed to be as offended as Daley that outsiders were coming and telling them what to do.

. . .

To some on the SCLC staff, the black opposition seemed to be rooted in years of oppression by whites. "The Negroes of Chicago have a greater feeling of powerlessness than I've ever seen," said SCLC staff member Hosea Williams. "They don't participate in the government process because they are beaten down psychologically. We are used to working with people who want to be free."

But the truth was, much of the opposition came not because Chicago blacks were powerless, but because they had more power than blacks in the rural South. Daley, who needed black votes in a way that southern politicians did not, handed out elected offices, patronage jobs, and money in the black community, and had singled out a few Dawsons and Metcalfes to represent blacks on a citywide level. These black leaders, and their armies of patronage workers, had a personal stake in the status quo, in a way that few blacks in Selma or Birmingham did.

. . .

King and the SCLC were not prepared for these anti-civil rights black ministers, but they were also disappointed to see how reluctant even ostensibly sympathetic black clergy were to stand up for civil rights. "Many ministers who were with us had to back off because they didn't want their buildings to be condemned or given citations for electrical work, faulty plumbing, or fire code violations," says the Reverend Clay Evans of the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. Mattie Hopkins of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, who had worked with King in Selma and Montgomery, says she never saw King as depressed as he was after meeting with a group of black ministers in Chicago. The ministers told King that they supported him, but could not speak out from their pulpits because they had already come under pressure from mortgage holders, city building inspectors, and others with ties to the Democratic machine. "He got his first real picture of the way Daley ran this town," Hopkins says.


The History Club archives start here.


Posted on January 16, 2007

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