Biographer David Lewis called it the “Chicago debacle.” The truth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Chicago Freedom Movement was more nuanced.(More)

The Chicago Freedom Movement is an overlooked and misunderstood chapter in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historians often write it off as largely a failure. In the first published biography of Dr. King, David Lewis called it the “Chicago debacle.” The reality is considerably more nuanced.

In 1965, Dr. King was at the height of his influence as a civil rights leader. His charismatic leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had helped galvanize public opinion and was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. King’s efforts had also received worldwide recognition when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Having struck a blow against Jim Crow laws, he plotted a new campaign in the fall of 1965. This time the target was the complex discriminatory practices that lead to de facto segregation of African Americans into urban ghettos. Chicago was, according to King, “where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

By the mid 1960s, the Lawndale section of Chicago had become the epitome of urban decay and racial segregation. King decided to make it home and base of his operations during his time in Chicago. He rented out the top floor of an apartment building at 1550 S. Hamlin Avenue and moved in with his family in January of 1966.

When Dr. King came to Chicago, he knew he was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The rock was the political machine run by Richard J. Daley and “The Boss” did not take kindly to outside agitators, no matter how famous. The hard place was a divided black community. Some local civil rights leaders, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Raby, and black business leaders encouraged King to come to Chicago. Many others in the community opposed his campaign. One group were those angered by the economic injustices they faced every day and believed that nonviolent methods were not going to right those wrongs any time soon. Another group were those aligned with the Machine. Delivering the black vote meant access to patronage jobs. Angering The Boss meant potentially upsetting that apple cart.

The high point of King’s efforts in Chicago was the “Freedom Sunday” rally in Soldier Field on July 10, 1966. King gave the keynote speech before a large crowd (the largest civil rights demonstration held during 1966) and then lead thousands of marchers down State Street to City Hall. In a not too subtle challenge to Daley and the Machine, he attached a list of demands on the main entrance to City Hall.

The low point came less than a month later. During a march through Marquette Park, an all white area of the city, King and 700 fellow marchers were pelted with rocks, bottles, firecrackers, and racist epithets. He was struck by a rock and knocked to his knees. He gave a sobering assessment of the experience. “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.” A planned march into Cicero, former home to Al Capone, a few weeks later would likely have produced similar results.

With the Democratic Party convention coming to Chicago in 1968, Daley was worried about the image of the city and more violence if the marches continued. The mayor convened a meeting that included King, other members of the Chicago Freedom Movement, religious leaders, and representatives of real estate board and banks. The “summit” agreement was reached that included promises to end discriminatory housing practices in exchange for an end to marches.

A few months after the signing of the summit agreement, it was clear to King and everyone else that nothing had changed. He left Chicago with many in the black community accusing him of naivete in dealing with Daley and having accomplished nothing of substance.

While he was disappointed in the failure of the summit agreement, Dr. King chose to think bigger. The Chicago Freedom Movement became the Poor Peoples Movement.

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.

SCLC address, August, 1967

There are three things that people use as a pretext to label the Chicago Freedom Movement as a debacle: (a) the failure of the summit agreement; (b) the violence that engulfed Lawndale after King’s death; and (c) the poverty that still ravages Lawndale. Let’s dig a bit deeper.

The summit agreement did not end discriminatory housing and lending practices in Chicago. It did not bring affordable housing or responsible landlords. However, a week after the assassination of Dr. King, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act), which outlawed many of the practices that were the focus of the summit agreement.

Even forty years later, Machine politics are still formidable and divisions within the black community still exploitable. In 2006, the Boss’s son, Richard M. Daley wanted to open Chicago to Walmart and Lawndale was selected as the first location. Community activist James Thindwa of Jobs with Justice fought back. When it became clear that community opposition alone was not going to be enough to stop Walmart, he lobbied the city council to pass the Living Wage Act, which required big box stores to pay a minimum wage of $10 per hour. The bill passed with an apparent veto-proof majority. Daley brought in Andrew Young, a well-connected political heavyweight and former close associate of Dr. King. Young managed to convince just enough city council members not to override Daley’s veto. Walmart built their new store without being troubled by the Living Wage Act. A recent economic analysis showed no net increase in jobs or sales tax revenues in the area around Walmart. Dr. King showed the way, but too many have failed to follow his footsteps.

Rioting broke out in Lawndale within hours after Dr. King’s assassination was reported. The violence left large swaths of the community in ruin, further increasing poverty and suffering in the area. The violence is often interpreted as somehow proof that his message was ineffective. The trouble is that many who took to the streets after his death were the very people who opposed his nonviolent methods when he was alive. Many of those proponents of violence regretfully admitted that King had been right. Violence changed nothing for the better.

The poverty and urban decay that remains in Lawndale is often used as further proof the Chicago Freedom Movement was a debacle for Dr. King. They even delight in pointing out the empty lot that replaced the building where he once lived while in Chicago.

No other Chicago neighborhood has more vacant lots. In 1960, 124,937 people lived in North Lawndale. Today, there are 41,768. More than 40% of them are in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, about $20,650 for a family of four.

Every few blocks, there are a couple of new condos or a restored old home, but the housing slump has left many unsold. On South Hamlin Avenue, where King lived briefly in 1966 during a fair housing campaign, litter clutters the vacant lot where his tenement stood.

Poverty is a stubborn beast and not just in Lawndale. Never mind that the factories that used to run through the heart of Lawndale have left not only the neighborhood, but fled the country. Never mind that high-rise public housing buildings have been torn down and replaced with mixed income developments. Ignore the signs of revitalization in the eastern and southern parts of the area. As for 1550 S. Hamlin, it no longer stands empty.