The Chicago Campaign and Northern Racism

An unprecedented amount of riots in urban cities throughout the country defined the summer of 1965 and the way forward for the Civil Rights Movement. The notion of peace through non-violence hadn’t broken past the South. From Los Angeles to Chicago, black Americans living in metropolitan cities felt they had met their breaking point from the persistence of police brutality, housing inequalities, and scarce job opportunities. Seeing the turmoil in the North, civil rights organizations began to shift their attention to urban regions of the country where racism was saturated in every aspect of society.

At the start of the new year in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) sought to move their campaign for equality to Chicago, Illinois, where grassroots mobilization had begun to fight against poverty and housing discrimination in one of America’s largest and most segregated cities. At the time, Chicago was home to over a million black Americans who for decades had migrated from the South looking for the American dream. In a document known as the Chicago Plan, the SCLC outlined the importance of mobilizing a larger movement in Chicago where economic corruption had affected every aspect of life for black citizens. “The Chicago problem is simply a matter of economic exploitation. Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence.”

One of the major industries being exploited was the housing market. Racist housing policies excluding black families from buying or renting a livable apartments or house forced them into neighborhoods that didn’t receive comparable care and services for the amount of rent paid.  In Chicago, black people were living in slums with no prospect of moving ahead to areas where their white peers lived. With these transparent racist policies in mind, the SCLC decided to join a coalition of civil rights groups in the city under the name the Chicago Freedom Movement. Even with the best intentions, their transition into the North was met with resistance from Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, who was reluctant to believe the city was in need of intervention from the SCLC. In his view, Chicago didn’t have racist policies written in the law like in Montgomery or Albany with Jim Crow. Because it wasn’t on paper, it must not be happening.

What Chicago had instead, were a set of cultural customs that replaced explicit laws to discriminate against black Americans. The Federal Housing Administration, outlined areas in cities where banks should feel comfortable lending mortgage loans based on property value and resident population. Neighborhoods with predominately black residents were outlined in red, meaning banks should be cautious of lending loans to residents in the area. This meant black residents were forced into the slums with slumlords who would charge higher rent, require more money upfront and would purposely allow the property to deteriorate so they wouldn’t have to pay more in property taxes (Reader, 295). For Dr. King and the SCLC, Chicago needed to mobilize citizens against these discriminatory practices that affected over a million black Americans living in the city.

In July of 1966, Dr. King led a massive march from Solider Field to the steps of City Hall demanding action from state, federal and local authorities to allow black Chicagoans the chance to escape from the economic and societal trap they have been put into from political, financial and housing institutions (Reader, 300).  With the housing inequality being one of the biggest issues that mobilized people, they planned marches into white neighborhoods that had systematically kept black families in the slums of the inner city. In neighborhoods like Gage Park, marchers came face to face with some of the most violet and egregious white protestors embellished with Swastikas and handmade explosives. Veteran Southern activists were shocked at what they experienced in Gage Park. In the south, protesters were driven by a mob mentality but in Chicago it was women and children and families who came out with bricks and homemade bombs.

The march into Gage Park was the first time Dr. King had led a march that ended in violence. While he was shaken and upset that nonviolence hadn’t prevailed, citizens of Chicago were ready, now more than ever, to continue the march into white neighborhoods. In Chicago, the neighborhood of Cicero was famous for its racial hostility and became the next destination for marchers. Clory Bryant, a resident of Chicago in 1966, she explained in the PBS documentary Eyes on The Prize how much a march into Cicero would mean a lot for the black community. “You don’t know what Cicero meant to people in Chicago. You don’t go into the viaduct, honey, because if you do, you may not get back. Cicero was on the other side of the viaduct. And you didn’t walk through Cicero alone. You didn’t let your car break down in Cicero and get out to change a tire,” Bryant said.

Dr. King was opposed to the march after he was able to negotiate a Fair Housing agreement with Mayor Bevel and the City of Chicago to make strides toward housing equality for black residents. But many saw this agreement as words on paper without any accountability for it to be enforced by state or local agencies. In defiance of Dr. King’s ultimate wishes, the march into Cicero was organized and led by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) on September 4th 1966. What set the Cicero march apart was how marchers began to fight back when bricks, eggs and rocks were thrown at them. They returned the violence.

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It was during the march into Cicero that the Civil Rights Movement, centered and created around the notion of non-violence, had to come to terms with the changing mentality among black Americans away from non-violence and toward a more aggressive approach to achieving racial equality. The Chicago campaign also allowed Dr. King and leaders in the SCLC to see how different the role racism played in the fabric of society in North versus the South. Different tactics were needed depending on the region and culture of racist practices. In the South, racist policies were written into law in the form of Jim Crow, which can be argued is easier to combat because laws can be changed just as they were made. Whereas Northern racism manifested itself in institutions that systematically chose to discriminate against black people. They were able to play the ignorance card and say these policies didn’t outright discriminate against black people and were applied to everyone. But when black people aren’t being hired for skilled jobs, can’t get a loan to buy a house so they are forced to live in neighborhoods with very few resources or an good schools for their children – it’s clear to see that the North was no different than the South. Explicit or not, the outcome was always for black people living in America.

On paper, the Chicago Plan was a failure for the SCLC. They hadn’t been able to negotiate solid demands with Mayor Daley, for the first time Dr. King had led a march that ended in violence and in Cicero marchers resorted to violence. They left Chicago no better than when they entered and some could argue even more divisive. But looking deeper into the larger effect the Chicago campaign played in the role of the greater Civil Rights Movement, it allowed our country to see how vital racial equality was for the security of our democracy. Racism wasn’t a Southern issue but an American issue that effected every community across the country.

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