Home Truths: Dr. King and the Chicago Freedom Movement

By Ralph, James R., Jr. | American Visions, August-September 1994 | Go to article overview

Home Truths: Dr. King and the Chicago Freedom Movement


Ralph, James R., Jr., American Visions


On Friday evening, August 5, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. was tired and torn by competing emotions. He had stripped off the jacket of his gray suit and removed his red and gray tie and was now sitting - recovering - on an old couch in a home on Chicago's South Side. Just hours earlier he had witnessed thousands of angry whites from heavily ethnic, middle-income neighborhoods heckle, jeer and assault his Chicago Freedom Movement followers, despite police protection, on a march protesting housing discrimination on Chicago's southwest side. King himself had been felled by a rock that struck his head. "Frankly, I have never seen as much hatred and hostility on the part of so many people," he said slowly. "To my mind those people represent the most tragic expression of man's inhumanity to man."

While King lamented the racial intolerance that suffused Chicago's white neighborhoods, he also sensed - with much relief - that the Chicago crusade was beginning to reach its potential. Since the fall of 1965, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) lieutenants and field staffers, in league with their Chicago allies, had searched for a strategy to end racial injustice in the Windy City. Early in the campaign, they focused on developing community organizations, especially in the newer black ghetto on Chicago's West Side. Jesse Jackson, meanwhile, had brought local clergy together to form a chapter of Operation Breadbasket with the mission to advance economic opportunities for black Chicagoans.

Throughout the fall and winter, the Chicago Freedom Movement claimed modest victories, but the North was foreign terrain for the SCLC, which had toiled for nearly a decade on Southern soil. The obstacles to successful insurgency in this huge, sprawling and complex city were formidable, and the spark for a truly electrifying campaign remained elusive.

Although King and his allies sought to recruit a "coalition of conscience" to support a program of democratic and social renewal, many influential Chicagoans were skeptical - and even critical - of that effort. The Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, the famed pastor of the historic Olivet Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side and the president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest African-American religious association, was one of the sharpest detractors. The older Jackson (who was not related to Jesse Jackson) had already squared off against King and other activist ministers. For years, he had warned against the inevitable harmful repercussions of civil disobedience, and now he lamented that King had brought his crusade to Chicago, Jackson's hometown.

In the summer of 1966, Jackson even debated King in a rare encounter between the two prominent clergymen on a local television program. While Jackson acknowledged that Chicago was not a paradise for blacks, he refused. to label it an immoral society and doubted whether protests - "a continuous dramatization" - of the city's failings would "help us solve" its problems.

The Rev. Jackson of Olivet was not the only important black Chicagoan who was cool toward the Chicago Freedom Movement. Six of the city's African-American aldermen, who represented wards on both the South and the West sides, wanted no part of this campaign. They had prospered under the current rules, and they - like some black Chicagoans - preferred familiar ways to radical change. Indeed, when news broke that King and the SCLC had targeted Chicago as the site of its first Northern campaign, Ralph Metcalfe, the former Olympic sprinter and a leading black alderman, stated, "We have competent leadership in Chicago and all things necessary to work out our city's own destiny."

Metcalfe's words endorsed the view of Chicago's chief politician, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Hailed as America's most powerful mayor and known as a confidant of Democratic presidents, Daley presided over a potent political apparatus, which virtually controlled the black wards, and he simply loathed the arrival of outsiders who were certain, in his mind, to stir up trouble within his city. …

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