Two years before his assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rented an apartment in Chicago. At the time, blacks and whites here lived lives as firmly separated as in the Deep South, where his civil rights crusade had begun. African-Americans faced violent mobs if they tried moving into white neighborhoods and were refused service at Loop restaurants. Gerrymandering of school boundaries kept the public schools segregated.
King, who was murdered 45 years ago this past Thursday, is most remembered for his campaigns against Jim Crow, like the iconic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., interrupted by police with billy clubs and tear gas, and subsequently completed with the protection of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents. Less well known is King's Chicago campaign the following year, inspired by his conviction that blacks would be liberated when they were free not only to vote in the South but also to live where they chose to in the urban North.
"We don't have wall-to-wall carpeting to worry about," King said shortly after moving into a run-down, third-floor flat at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. on Jan. 26, 1966. "But we have wall-to-wall rats and roaches."
To underscore the point, he led marches through middle-class, white neighborhoods, where he was confronted by hostile crowds. "Many of the residents waved signs referring to George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi party," the Tribune reported about one such standoff on the East Side, at the southeast corner of the city. In Marquette Park on the Southwest Side, signs read, "Join the White Rebellion," and "We Worked Hard For What We Got," and a rock was thrown that knocked King to the ground.
"I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today," King said afterward.
Though King came to Chicago with a Nobel Peace Prize, he was greeted with suspicion by the city's establishment — even those who recognized the evil of racism. Some of his most vocal critics were black, such as Ernest Rather, president of Chicago Committee of One Hundred, an interracial alliance of businessmen and professionals. The Tribune reported Rather advising King and his staff that they "should go back to the south where they are needed." Edwin Berry, executive director of the Urban League, had to defend himself over charges that, by inviting King to Chicago, he'd brought in a carpetbagger.
"We needed help so badly that I would have sent for the Apostle Paul if I had known his address," Berry said.
White Chicagoans, often ministers and rabbis, who marched with King faced the Tribune's editorial scorn: "Those 'rights' leaders and the foggy clergymen who abet them on are not heroes." Throughout King's Chicago stay, the Tribune savaged him, sometimes with satire: "The commander in the paper hat has waved the wooden sword. Who will follow him in the charge against Cemetery ridge?" it asked, comparing his open-housing marches to the Battle of Gettysburg.
Alternately, the paper redbaited King, accusing him of fomenting "criminal syndicalism" — a hoary charge leveled at a long line of labor organizers and political dissenters. "If the marchers keep up their sabotage, it will be time to indict the whole lot of them," an Aug. 18, 1966, editorial advised.
The apartment where King chose to highlight his Chicago campaign was in Lawndale, an impoverished neighborhood on the West Side — then as now, virtually 100 percent black. By choosing it as an example of what was wrong in Chicago, King was throwing down a gauntlet to the city's mayor.
"I've lived in Chicago all my life, and I still say we have no ghettos in Chicago," Mayor Richard J. Daley had said three years earlier, a pronouncement that got him booed off the stage at an NAACP meeting.
At a massive rally in July 1966 at Soldier Field, King told the crowd: "This day we must decide to fill up the jails in Chicago, if necessary in order to end slums." He also posted a list of demands on a City Hall door — much as, four centuries earlier, his namesake had posted a demand for church reform on a cathedral door.
Daley responded by accusing King of playing a dangerous game, saying, "There is a danger of using nonviolence in such a way that it will create violence."
But recall what else happened here that summer — and what it must have felt like for Chicagoans. In June, police clashed with rioters for two nights along Division Street in a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood after an officer shot a young man there. And in July, two people were killed and 300 arrested in disturbances along Roosevelt Road that began after police shut down a fire hydrant where residents sought relief from the summer heat. The National Guard was called in to help quell the violence, which spread across the West Side. But the riots and the 2,200 National Guardsmen patrolling city streets weren't even the lead story that week. Why? Because seven nurses were found slain July 14 in a Southeast Side town house, and their killer, Richard Speck, was arrested July 17. The horrendous crime could only have solidified the sense that the city was on the brink of chaos.
Then came the incident of Aug. 5, when King was assaulted in Marquette Park, which led many on both sides to temper their rhetoric. On Aug. 26, King and Daley met at City Hall, where the mayor pledged to enforce the city's open-housing ordinance. In fact, it was more a fig leaf than an olive branch. The city remained segregated, as King acknowledged when assessing his Chicago campaign, saying, "It was the first step in a 1,000-mile journey."
Yet less than two decades later, Chicago had a black mayor. Could King have imagined that? Hard to say, but one of King's great strengths was his ability to see the potential for progress in the bleakest of scenes — like the overcrowded, threadbare classrooms of Chicago's ghetto.
"It's criminal to have our children have the kind of education they are getting," King said. "There may be another Plato or Einstein in a Chicago school."