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50 Years Ago, Martin Luther King Jr. Fought For Open Housing In Chicago


The Chicago freedom movement is marking its 50th anniversary. In the shadow of the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, it's considered the first significant Northern freedom movement to tackle the issues faced by African-Americans in urban areas up North.

Fifty years ago this month, Chicago's mayor signed onto an agreement which promised to create a more open housing market in the region. This came after months of organizing and marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Now is the time to get rid of the slums and ghettos of Chicago. Now is the time to make justice a reality all over this nation. Now is the time.


SHAPIRO: Some called the ambitious Chicago effort a failure, but it laid the groundwork for what would become the country's Fair Housing Act. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: In 1966, Chicago grassroots activists were working on everything from voting rights to better schools to dealing with police. What Martin Luther King Jr. brought, though, was national attention and exposure of what many considered hidden racism.

Jesse Jackson, then a 25-year-old theology student in Chicago, worked for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and says that Chicago's strict boundaries kept African-Americans confined.

JESSE JACKSON: I mean we couldn't use the hospitals. We couldn't sit in the parks, couldn't move there, couldn't play there. We were just segregated as any Southern city ever was just west of Halsted.

CORLEY: Halsted Street was one of those don't-cross-the-other-side-of-the-street racial dividing lines. In 1966, King and his family moved to Chicago, renting a decrepit apartment on the city's west side. The focus this time was not on desegregating lunch counters or water fountains but taking on the problems of an urban city's black ghetto. A success here could create the model for civil rights work in other Northern cities. Don Rose was the press secretary for Dr. King and the Chicago Freedom Movement.

DON ROSE: The original concept was a campaign to end slums, by which he meant not just housing but slum schools, slum work, slum health care and of course lines of segregation all around the city.

CORLEY: The Chicago plan was a joint vision of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Chicago's Coordinating Council of Community Organizations. Thousands would march to Chicago City Hall, and King would post the demands of the movement on the City Hall door. Chicago's powerful mayor, Richard J. Daley, determined to keep control of his city, appeared conciliatory.


RICHARD J DALEY: We'd like to know where places are rundown or it's a hazard to human life. The fire department wants to know if a building is in such shape that it's a danger to life of the people that are in it, and they can be of great help in giving us this information.

CORLEY: The Chicago Freedom Movement refined its focus, and by the summer of 1966, housing discrimination was its primary target. As King and activists held rallies outside real estate offices and marched into all-white neighborhoods, their reception was often fierce and violent.


CORLEY: In the Marquette Park neighborhood on Chicago's Southwest Side, an angry white mob hurled bricks, bottles and rocks with one hitting Martin Luther King.


KING JR: Well, this is a terrible thing. I've been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I'm seeing in Chicago.

CORLEY: Chicago's Mayor Daley, embarrassed by the march and fearful of a racial explosion, moved to prevent another march. He met with King and other activists to work out a summit agreement. That led to the creation of one of the nation's first fair housing organizations, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities.

AURIE PENNICK: When it first got out the gate, it was to be kind of the agitator around the issue of housing, fair housing in particular - but slums.

CORLEY: Aurie Pennick, who served as one of the CEOs of the now-defunct Leadership Council, says for decades, the Council continued the Chicago freedom movement practice of sending teams of black and white couples into real estate offices to see where realtors would offer the test couples' homes to rent or buy.

Pennick taking legal action to fight housing discrimination in the city and surrounding suburbs was key. But in 1966, there was little enforcement of the summit agreement, and not long after its signing, King would express his disappointment.


KING JR: The Leadership Council must recognize that the city's inaction is not just a rebuff to the Chicago Freedom Movement or a courtship of the white backlash but also another hot coal on the smolder fires of discontent and despair that are rampant in our black communities.

CORLEY: After King's assassination in 1968, Congress, spurred by his death and the Chicago Freedom Movement, passed the Fair Housing Act, the law designed to protect people from discrimination as they rent, buy or get financing for housing.

Today Chicago remains segregated, less so than 50 years ago but not without new dividing issues.

JAWANZA MALONE: We are in a community that is being gentrified, and residents who have little to no means, low-income and working families are hard-pressed to find safe places they can live here.

CORLEY: Even so, Jawanza Malone, the executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, says his group and others continue to push for housing changes by backing and creating tenants' rights organizations. There's also an effort to get the city to adopt a so-called keeping-the-promise ordinance which would, among other things, locate public housing throughout all of the city's neighborhoods.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let me hear you say freedom.




CORLEY: Earlier this month hundreds of people of different races and religions participated in what was called the 1000 Mile March to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement and the 1966 march through Marquette Park. They retraced a portion of the route that was so fraught with tension and anger and resolve 50 years ago. Edie Armstrong (ph) was also among the marchers in 1966.

EDIE ARMSTRONG: It was a hurtful experience the first time around, and I didn't want to come to Marquette Park for many years. So now I'm back to continue healing and to celebrate what we've been able to achieve since then.

CORLEY: Besides laying the groundwork for the Fair Housing Act, many marchers say the Chicago Freedom Movement spurred black political activism, resulting in the election of Chicago's first black mayor, three black U.S. senators from Illinois and even an African-American president. Also Operation Breadbasket, the forerunner of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, was an arm of the Chicago Freedom Movement dedicated to improving the economic conditions of African-Americans.

Paige May (ph), who brought teenagers with her to this march, says progress - yes, but she says younger people have inherited an unfinished struggle.

PAIGE MAY: And we have to continue in the legacy of MLK and the civil rights movement and the legacy of abolition movements of before. We have a lot of work to do, but it's also - it feels like a day that's celebratory in a lot of ways - right? - but in the sphere of struggle and resistance.

CORLEY: Now in Marquette Park, there's a permanent memorial of the Chicago Freedom Movement, an idea sparked by IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in that neighborhood. It's a carved brick image of Martin Luther King Jr. and others coming together in a community once off limits to African-Americans. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.