Marching on: if Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he'd find many black Chicagoans living in conditions similar to those he witnessed here 40 years ago.
In this and the next three issues, The Chicago Reporter will examine the successes and setbacks of King's campaign, using that struggle as a lens to examine what insight about present-day Chicago can be gleaned from it. Linking chronology and theme, the series will explore issues that King tackled in roughly the same months that he and others addressed 40 years earlier.
This is a story of unfinished business. It is a story of triumphs and setbacks, of lofty goals and earthly accomplishments earned at an agonizingly slow pace, of substantial change and overriding continuity.
It is a story of Chicago in 1966 and 2006. The story started 40 winters ago in North Lawndale on the city's West Side and spread throughout Chicago's neighborhoods. It ends, for now, in many of the same communities where the struggle was first waged.
On Jan. 5, 1966, after months of planning, Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Chicago for three days of intensive meetings that marked the formal beginning of his first northern civil rights campaign. He encountered a city deeply divided by race and class. The city's poorest 10 neighborhoods all had a majority black population. In 1960, South Side communities like Oakland and Grand Boulevard had some of the highest rates of unemployed male workers as well as close to half of their available housing units in dilapidated condition.
Echoing a phrase first used by Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant, King articulated a startlingly ambitious goal. "Our primary objective will be to bring about the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums and ultimately to make slums a moral and financial liability upon the whole community," he announced. Although the movement's precise goals were vague, King identified a three-phase strategy beginning with block-by-block canvassing and culminating in mass direct action to accomplish his task.
If he were alive today, King would find a Chicago that has both seen significant changes and yet retains fundamental similarities to the city he encountered 40 years ago.
The unemployment picture remains largely the same and has worsened in some areas. In 1960, when the U.S. Census Bureau only tracked unemployment for men, eight of the 10 communities with the highest rates of male unemployment in Chicago were predominantly black. By 2000, all 10 of the communities with the highest male unemployment rates were predominantly African American. In 1960, Riverdale's 16 percent male unemployment rate was the highest of any black community and more than three times the citywide rate. In 2000, the Douglas community's 40 percent mark, tops in the city, was nearly four times the citywide rate.
Fair housing practices have helped open many neighborhoods to racial minorities, including some that vehemently opposed King and the entry of black residents in 1966. The number of community areas that are predominantly African American has more than doubled since that time, and about a quarter of the city's nearly three million people are Latinos. But the city remains largely segregated with blacks found mostly on the city's South and West sides and most whites residing on the North and Northwest sides.
Incomes for African Americans rose from 1970 to 2000, with several African American news anchors, legendary athletes like Michael Jordan and billionaires like Oprah Winfrey joining the ranks of the Chicago-area elite. Still, nine of the city's 10 poorest neighborhoods in 2000 were predominantly black. And many black and Latino neighborhoods have poorer quality housing and much lower annual median incomes than majority white neighborhoods.
The work of Chicago Council of Community Organizations leader Albert Raby and hundreds of other people in the '60s laid the groundwork for the 1983 election of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. Yet, the movement, while retaining aging core members, stumbled after Washington's sudden death in November 1987 and has yet to mount a similarly successful effort.
Some believe that King would be hard pressed to say that Chicago had been transformed into the city of full equality he had hoped to see. "I suspect that Dr. King would say to us, 'Keep fighting," said the Rev. Addie Wyatt, pastor emeritus of Vernon Park Church of God in Chicago and a long-time labor leader who worked closely with King. "We were singing, 'We Shall Overcome,' but we have not overcome. I realize that more than ever."
On Jan. 26, 1966, King moved his family into a dingy two-bedroom apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin, Ave. in the North Lawndale neighborhood. "You can t really get close to the poor without living and being here with them," King told a crowd of reporters and photographers gathered at the tenement house.
The new King home was far from paradise.
In spite of a round of repairs prompted by the civil rights leader's impending arrival, the apartment smelled of urine, the refrigerator was broken and the heater barely worked, according to Stephen B. Oates, author of "Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr." At $90 per month, not including utilities, King's rent was higher than the less than $80 monthly rent many residents paid for modern, five-and-a-half room apartments in all-white areas like Gage Park and Belmont-Cragin, Oates explained.
That evening King spoke at a meeting attended by about 500 North Lawndale residents, and he toured the area the next day.
Nicknamed "Slumdale," North Lawndale was among the city's poorest communities, and its residents lived in some of Chicago's tightest quarters. Many of the people had come from the South to escape Jim Crow laws and search for jobs.
Along with other South and West side neighborhoods like East Garfield Park, Greater Grand Crossing and Kenwood, North Lawndale had experienced a large influx of African Americans after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional in its 1948 decision, Shelley v. Kraemer. North Lawndale changed from being 13 percent black in 1950 to 91 percent African American by 1960. Although King set up shop on the West Side, in part because of the presence there of top lieutenant James Bevel, he could have chosen many other South and West side neighborhoods to illustrate the plight of poor residents living in dilapidated conditions.
In "Northern Protest: Martin Luther King Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement," Middlebury College History Professor James K Ralph Jr. noted that these communities are likely to have deteriorated by the time of King's arrival in 1966. The infusion of black people in neighborhoods like North Lawndale and East Garfield Park, he wrote, led to "a decline in the quality of the housing stock ... as landlords divided larger accommodations and often suspended routine maintenance on their properties." Ralph added that city services to changing neighborhoods also declined.
King's tactic was to expose the slum conditions and to pressure the Richard J. Daley administration into taking corrective action. After spending several weeks in his new home, King asserted "superlegal" authority in taking over a nearby building at 1321 S. Homan Ave. to repair it. Donning work clothes, King, Raby and others began cleaning the rat-infested building, which had no heat and was inhabited by R.V. Townes, his wife, Rosie, and their seven children. The family welcomed the intervention.
Despite these highly visible actions, King learned during the next few months that changing real estate practices and transforming slum-like conditions was neither a short-term nor a straightforward project. Critics pointed out that many building owners in poor communities were black. Involved for years in a struggle to oust Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Benjamin Willis, the Chicago movement struggled to create a well-defined strategy. The campaign also lacked a galvanizing opponent like southern sheriffs Theophilus "Bull" Connor in Birmingham or Jim Clark, whose televised brutality toward black protestors had outraged viewers and pressured national political leaders to take legislative action.
King also met opposition from Mayor Daley, who waged an aggressive public relations campaign to tout the efficacy of his current and future anti-slum initiatives. Despite maintaining that that there were no slums in Chicago, just "bad housing," Daley attempted to divert attention from the movement's efforts by announcing in March 1966 his plan to eradicate the city's slums by the end of 1967. That plan did not succeed.
"We don't have as many slums, but we still have slums," said James W. Compton, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Urban League. "The crusade and challenge is still before us. We have segregation based not only upon race, but upon class."
The South Hamlin apartment in which King lived no longer exists. In its place is a parking lot where shards of glass from empty beer and Seagram's gin bottles mingle with grass pushing through the asphalt's many cracks. The house on South Homan Avenue that King and others took over to repair in February 1966 is still there, though.
The building was cited for 23 code violations in 1966, but the city has issued just two sets of minor code violations, both of which were eventually dismissed, during the past 20 years. And while an absentee landlord owned the building in 1966, one of its current owners has listed 1321 S. Homan Ave. as home for more than five years.
But all is not perfect. Were the civil rights leader able to return to the house, he would likely be struck by the brand of incomplete progress Compton described.
The middle of the front facade is cracked, as is a third-floor window and a side of the front steps. Dark garbage bags cover the windows on the front door. The lot next to the house is vacant with a yard full of grass and weeds.
These conditions endure in other black neighborhoods on the South and West sides because of the complex intersection of individuals' choices with deeply rooted policy and structural forces, said John Lukehart, acting executive director of Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities.
He described a cycle in which institutional real estate-related practices that fostered segregation have often been followed by a lack of public and private investment in racially changing neighborhoods. This reduction in expenditure then negatively impacts the communities' tax base, which is a major source of funding for schools and other public services, said Lukehart, author of the 2005 report, "The Segregation of Opportunities: The Structure of Advantage and Disadvantage in the Chicago Region." "The issue is pretty insidious and pretty embedded in institutions," he said. "Because it s deeply embedded, it's hard to root out and change."
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|Title Annotation:||Keeping Current|
|Author:||Lowenstein, Jeff Kelly|
|Publication:||The Chicago Reporter|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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