Martin Luther King West Chicago

During the final years of his life, Rev. King led a campaign against poverty and de facto segregation in the North that was met with institutional resistance, skepticism from other activists and open violence.

August 5th, 1966

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out of his car in his usual dark suit and polished shoes. He was met by a line of police and a mob of angry white people.

As the 37-year-old civil rights leader strode toward several hundred supporters, a stone sailed through the air and struck King, sending him to one knee. Aides shielded the Nobel laureate from bricks and bottles hurled by the furious crowd.

I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I've seen here in Chicago. — The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1966

King had faced violence before. But this time, he wasn't in the Jim Crow South. He was in Chicago.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during Chicago Freedom Movement
"I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I've seen here in Chicago," King told reporters that day, stripping off his tie and vowing to continue demonstrating. "Yes, it's definitely a closed society. We're going to make it an open society."

Economic Inequality

Announcing on Jan. 7, 1966, "the first significant Northern freedom movement ever attempted by major civil rights forces," King said Chicago would be the first front in a campaign for justice against the "involuntary enslavement" of blacks in Northern slums.

King's battle against economic inequality, which historians say improved conditions for some black Chicagoans, but not all.

"There has been and hasn't been change; it depends on how you look at it," said Timuel D. Black, a 97-year-old Chicago historian and activist who knew King and protested with him. For middle-class African Americans, "it made desirable housing and schools more accessible and available."

King's Objective

"will be to bring about the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums and ultimately make slums a moral and financial liability upon the whole community."

Instead of focusing on narrow targets such as lunch counters or buses, the Chicago Freedom Movement would fight everything: slumlords, realtors and Mayor Richard J. Daley's Democratic machine.

Demonstrators inspired by King advanced peacefully into white neighborhoods

"swastikas bloomed in Chicago parks like misbegotten weeds,"
"Our marchers were met by a hailstorm of bricks, bottles and firecrackers."

An up-and-coming activist named Jesse Jackson made the boldest play yet: a threat to march into Cicero, a nearly 100% white suburb notorious for violent racism. In 1951, a Cicero mob had attacked an apartment building where a black family had moved; earlier in 1966, four whites had beaten a black teenager, Jerome Huey, to death.

Officials called the march "suicidal" and reached an agreement with activists to improve open housing and desegregation efforts.

Chicago 2017

Today, Chicago is still largely informally segregated. An enormous wealth gap still separates black and white Americans, and recent protests over police treatment of African Americans have projected deep anger over racial inequality.

Despite Chicago still being one of the nation's most segregated metropolitan areas, older black Chicagoans look around today and see a different city than the one King occupied.

"I was born here and have seen the change, and I'm amazed,
Everywhere my wife and I travel in this city, we see black faces. Not just working everywhere — they're living around the city,
You sure didn't see that when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s."

- Christopher Reed, 76-year-old professor emeritus at Roosevelt University.

In 2017 is that really the best society can do?

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