In history textbooks and Hollywood dramas, Martin Luther King Jr. is often depicted in one of two places: Selma, Alabama and Washington, D.C. And yet, two of his last three years on Earth were spent here in Chicago, spearheading the Chicago Freedom Movement from 1965 to 1967.
This Sunday, the movement—which sought to end the city’s transparently racist housing policies, among other civil rights issues—celebrates the 50th anniversary of King’s “Freedom Rally” at Soldier Field. “We are tired,” King said to a crowd of over 35,000 on July 10, 1966. “We are tired of being seared in the flames of withering injustice.”
Also this year, the University Press of Kentucky published The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North, where a diverse array of experts examines the impact King made in Chicago and throughout the country. I spoke with two of the book’s editors—Mary Lou Finley, sociologist and professor emerita at Antioch University Seattle, and James Ralph, professor at Middlebury College—about why the Chicago Freedom Movement is mistakenly considered a “failure” by some historians, as well as its legacy 50 years later.
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Adam Morgan: Why do you think so many people have forgotten about MLK’s time in Chicago?
Mary Lou Finley: The victories here were not as clear and immediate as those in the South. But the Chicago Freedom Movement raised fundamental questions of economic fairness, and these have always been tough questions for America to face. In an age of growing inequality, they are still relevant today.
James Ralph: The civil rights movement in the first half of the 1960s sparked potent federal civil rights legislation and policy, and inspired a growing national consensus that overt discrimination on the basis of race was un-American. But the Chicago Freedom Movement sought to address deeper sources of racial division and inequality that underpinned racial dynamics across the country. Its mission—to end slums—was very ambitious, especially since the active campaign in Chicago only lasted eighteen months. Even if all had gone as well as possible, the stated mission was not going to be accomplished in such a relatively brief period of time.
The prevailing view of the Chicago Freedom Movement was established by late summer of 1966, when reporters and news commentators declared that Mayor Richard J. Daley had been able to best the efforts of civil right forces in Chicago. The popularity of that verdict of “defeat” goes a long way to explaining the general neglect of the Chicago Freedom Movement in Chicago and elsewhere for much of the past 50 years.
Adam Morgan: What can we learn from King’s work in the late 60s about the socio-economic issues facing Chicago today?
Mary Lou Finley: Martin Luther King made it very clear that the issues of poverty and inequality are matters of justice, economic justice. Poverty is not the fault of those who suffer from it, but rather of an economy which fails to provide adequate jobs with a living wage. Once again, we need to see this as a matter of justice, economic justice, and Martin Luther King’s wisdom can help us recognize the systemic injustices bringing misery to so many.
James Ralph: The Chicago Freedom Movement revealed the power of ordinary people with a sense of purpose and strategy in tackling the most vexing problems of their time. For much of the fall of 1965, Chicago activists educated themselves on the forces at work that created and sustained slums and segregation in the city. They also believed the value of coalition, in the value of blacks and whites, men and women, youth and adults working together. And they believed in the power of nonviolence as a strategy for social change.
They developed an approach to social change that can be emulated today.
Further, they recognized that sources of inequality could not solely be challenged at the metropolitan or state level. They called for creating a nation that promoted opportunity and one that equitably shared its abundance.
Adam Morgan: What was the most surprising, fascinating, or shocking story you discovered while putting the book together?
Mary Lou Finley: The biggest surprise to me was learning about the long-term impact of the tenant union organizing in Chicago. Martin Luther King’s staff was primarily organizing tenant unions, particularly on the West Side, and one company, Condor and Costalis, had agreed to a collective bargaining agreement with their tenants on July 13, 1966. There was another collective bargaining agreement with a landlord in Uptown. These things we knew.
What surprised me was the way the tenant union movement burst out of Chicago in the months and years that followed. By 1969 a National Tenants Organization, coalesced out of an alliance of Chicago’s tenant organization and Jesse Gray’s tenant organizing in New York City, had 60 affiliates. By 1972, when Chicago attorney Gil Cornfield won an Illinois Supreme Court case giving tenants rights—such as the right to have a “habitable” home—tenant law began to change all over the U.S., giving tenants many more rights. The Chicago Freedom Movement had a key role in launching this process, and Chicagoans who worked with the movement persisted with the work for many more years.
James Ralph: I loved learning the story behind the Dr. King Legacy Apartments and Memorial District that is told in the book by Kimberlie Jackson. For more than 40 years, the Chicago Freedom Movement had been largely neglected in the popular memory of the city. And here only a few years ago was a grassroots effort on the West Side of Chicago to build on the aspirations of the Chicago Freedom Movement to improve housing for ordinary people and to tell the story of the Chicago movement on the very site where Dr. King took up residence in early 1966.
Adam Morgan: Even though the movement is viewed historically as a “failure” by some, what kinds of lasting impacts did it make on Chicago?
Mary Lou Finley: Chicago’s landlord-tenant laws finally changed in 1986 during the Harold Washington administration—later than in other parts of the US. The work begun by Jesse Jackson with Operation Breadbasket played a key role in transforming the economic landscape for African Americans in Chicago, offering many new opportunities.
James Ralph: Even though Chicago continues to be a divided city and opportunities for advancement are not equally available to all of its residents, the Chicago Freedom Movement challenged the dual housing market that had sharply limited the housing opportunities of black Chicagoans. Today—in good measure because of the work of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a direct outgrowth of the Chicago movement—African Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups do not face the open discrimination in housing that their forbears did 50 years ago.
The Chicago Freedom Movement also helped strengthen tenants’ rights and equal lending in Chicago and elsewhere. Through Operation Breadbasket, it boosted the buying power and employment opportunities for African Americans and thus helped solidify Chicago as a leading center for black business and entrepreneurship.
Finally, the Chicago movement helped weaken the domination of city politics by the Cook County Democratic Party, which led to the important reform mayoralty of Harold Washington and, ultimately, I would argue, to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the country.
One of the major points of our new book is that the Chicago Freedom Movement helped set in motion initiatives that would have repercussions many years after its conclusion. In other words, only with the hindsight of 50 years can its full impact be fully assessed.
Adam Morgan: What drew each of you to this project in particular? Why is the Chicago Freedom Movement a story worth telling?
Mary Lou Finley: I was a part of the Chicago Freedom Movement. With the assistance of a classmate who was already in Chicago, I learned that after graduating from Stanford University I could become a volunteer at the West Side Christian Parish, where Reverend James Bevel would be arriving in the fall, just months after playing a crucial leadership role in the Selma voting rights campaign. It seemed like an exciting place to be, and so I plunged in, though I hadn’t been to Chicago before (save for a few months when I lived there with my parents as a very young child during World War II.) I ended up joining the SCLC staff and working as the secretary to Reverend Bevel.
The experience I had there as movement staff was dramatically transformative, and in some sense has been a cornerstone for the rest of my life and career. I had long felt that I wanted to do something to honor the Chicago Freedom Movement work and in some way to give back for the life-transforming experiences I had as a part of the movement. With this book I feel I have been able to do that. It is a giving back to Chicago, to the children and grandchildren of those who participated, their stories. This makes me very happy.
James Ralph: I’ve been studying the Chicago Freedom Movement for more than 30 years now. My book, Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 1993. My work on Northern Protest brought me into contact with many of the participants in the Chicago Freedom Movement. Universally, they were concerned that the full significance of their efforts in the mid-1960s in Chicago had been overlooked.
When Bernard LaFayette asked me to join a planning group to organize a 40th anniversary commemoration of the Chicago Freedom Movement in 2006, I immediately said, “yes.” Our new book is a direct outgrowth of that commemoration effort, and it seeks to promote the same goals—to spread greater awareness and understanding of the significance of the Chicago Freedom Movement in order to challenge conventional historical interpretations and to present lessons learned from that earlier struggle that could benefit those seeking a more just world today.
Adam Morgan: Why should Chicagoans read this book?
Mary Lou Finley: This is Martin Luther King’s story, but it is also Chicago’s story. Chicagoans, with their feisty, creative energy and commitments to justice, carried on the work of the Chicago Freedom Movement for many years after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Al Raby led the movement here. Their creative solutions brought changes not only to Chicago, but to the nation.
James Ralph: First, this book should enlarge their understanding of their city’s history. Chicago has a rich, though turbulent, history—from the Great Chicago Fire to the Pullman Strike to the upheaval over the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Chicago Freedom Movement should be incorporated into the popular narrative of the city’s progression.
Second, those who long today for a better Chicago should be inspired by the efforts of local Chicago activists and those connected with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. King. The people who composed the Chicago Freedom Movement certainly took action to bring about immediate change, but they also established organizations and initiatives that continued for many years, albeit without much fanfare, to challenge the deep injustices in Chicago and across the country.
NONFICTION – HISTORY
The Chicago Freedom Movement
Edited by Mary Lou Finley, Bernard LaFayette Jr., James R. Ralph Jr., and Pam Smith
University Press of Kentucky
Published April 2016
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.