Dr King Struggle for Affordable Housing - Our House DC - Featured Image
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders joined the Chicago Freedom Movement demanding an end to discrimination in housing. On July 10, 1966, King delivered a major speech at Chicago’s Soldier Field, then led marchers to City Hall where he taped a letter to the door demanding Mayor Richard Daley open the city and end housing discrimination. Photo ©RoyLewisLewis1966


“This day, we must declare our own Emancipation Proclamation. This day we must commit ourselves to make any sacrifice necessary to change Chicago. This day we must decide to fill up the jails of Chicago, if  necessary, in order to end slums.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, we celebrate the 93rd birthday of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this edition of the Our House D.C. Newsletter, we will reflect on King’s efforts to improve social and economic conditions for Blacks in the South and the forces that brought the civil rights movement to the North.

Housing was a crucial part of King’s vision for economic justice. 

Unfortunately, 93 years after his birth, 50 years after he moved into a dilapidated Chicago apartment, and 53 years after his assassination, followed by the passage of the Fair Housing Act, King’s vision of equitable and fair housing remains unfulfilled.  

King brings the movement to Chicago 

In January 1966, King announced plans to bring his crusade for civil rights to Chicago, Illinois. Leaders of the Chicago Freedom Movement, a coalition of 44 civil rights organizations, invited King to Chicago to help bring attention to the racist and discriminatory practices impacting Blacks in the North, including education, employment, and housing. 

Albert Raby, a Chicago school teacher, community activist, and leader of Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), personally appealed to King for help and invited him to co-chair the Chicago Freedom Movement.  King agreed,  and on January 26, 1966, just 11 days after his 37th birthday, King captured national attention when he moved his family into a $90-a-month railroad apartment on Chicago’s West Side, 1550 South Hamlin Avenue, to protest living conditions. 

A contributing writer to Chicago Magazine, David Bernstein recounted the period when King arrived in Chicago. In his article titled Martin Luther Ing Jr.’s 1966 Chicago Campaign, Bernstein wrote,  “King had come to Chicago to make the city the next proving ground for his nonviolent revolution.”

“In the South,” Bernstein noted, “King and his followers had taken on Jim Crow segregation at lunch counters, on buses, and in voting booths; in the North, his crusade, called the Chicago Freedom Movement, would confront a less overt but equally insidious injustice: namely, the discriminatory and duplicitous real estate practices, such as steering, redlining, and panic peddling, that kept Blacks boxed inside big-city ghettos. 

“If we can break the system in Chicago, it can be broken any place in the country,” King declared at a summit of community organizations in 1965. 

In her memoir, “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Coretta Scott King recalls the family’s moving day into the Chicago apartment they would call home. “Our apartment was on the third floor of a dingy building, which had no lights in the hall, only one dim bulb at the head of the stairs … As we walked in … the smell of urine was overpowering. We were told that this was because the door was always open, and the drunks came in off the streets to use the hallway as a toilet.”

King faces Northern resistance

Indeed, by moving north and concerning himself with housing, equality, and employment, the civil rights movement began to encounter increased resistance. 

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley considered King an outsider and initially denounced King’s efforts. 

“Dr. King is very sincere in what he is trying to do. Maybe at times, he doesn’t have all the facts on the local situation. After all, he is a resident of another city. He admitted himself that they have the same problems in Atlanta.”

In reality, Daley wanted the city to remain segregated in order to keep its white citizens from fleeing to the suburbs.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1966, King held numerous rallies and marches to highlight housing conditions in Chicago, including in predominantly White neighborhoods, where he and the marchers encountered physical and verbal hostilities. White men and women lined the streets carrying signs calling on their followers to “Join the White Revolution” and “We Worked Hard for What We Got.” They hollered chants, including, “Two, four, six, eighth, we don’t want to integrate!” 

On July 10th, also known as Freedom Sunday, 30,000 people packed Soldier Field in 98-degree sweltering heat to hear King speak to city housing conditions. From Soldier Field, they marched with King to City Hall and looked on and cheered as he tacked a notice to the door demanding housing reforms.

Late that summer, on August 5, protestors marched with King in Gage Park. The protest turned violent, and King was struck in the head by a rock thrown by a group of hecklers. When asked by a reporter if he was surprised by the welcome by residents, King said,  “Oh yes, it’s definitely a very closed society, and we’re going to make it an open society. And, we feel we have to do it this way in order to bring the evil out into the open so that this community will be forced to deal with it.”

He later commented, “I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

What did the movement achieve in Chicago?

The reviews are mixed. 

Mayor Daley surprised many when he called for an audit of housing conditions in poor neighborhoods considered to be a “hazard to human life.” Daley met with King and residents to negotiate an agreement to commit the city to fair and open housing policies. Some Blacks considered the agreement weak, lacking any enforcement, and thereby represented a major defeat for the movement and their efforts in Chicago.

Dr. King, however, called the agreement a “first step in a thousand-mile journey” and declared victory. On the other hand, Daley told reporters it was a “gentlemen’s agreement” that was unenforceable. 

Reverend Ralph Abernathy, an aide to King, later wrote, “Richard Daley was a fox, too smart for us.”

Reverend Andrew Young, also an aide to Dr. King, remembers, “We weren’t anti-Daley, or anti-Willis [Benjamin Willis, Chicago Schools Chief] or anti-Wallace [Alabama George Wallace]. We were for good housing, for good schools, for good healthcare.”

Yet, one significant outcome of the 1966 summer of rallies, protests, and marches in Chicago was the enactment of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Fair Housing Act of 1968

On April 11, 1968, one week after King’s assassination in Memphis, President Lyndon B. Johnson again used this national tragedy to mobilize support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This legislation expanded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the inclusion of Title VIII known as the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as amended), and family status. 

King’s vision of equitable and fair housing remains unfulfilled

Since King’s untimely death in April 1968, civil rights leaders and national organizations have continued to address racial inequities and injustices related to education, healthcare, and housing in every city across the U.S.

While housing discrimination is not what it was, and Blacks have the right to live wherever they desire, racism and discrimination still exist, and civil rights still use testing as a method to expose it. Such is the case in a recently reported story of a Black couple who had a White friend pretend to own their Northern California home to test the appraisal. The appraisal value increased nearly half a million dollars for the White friend over the estimate previously given to the Black couple, who reportedly filed a lawsuit against the White appraiser, accusing her of violating the Fair Housing Act. 

The National Association of Real Estate Brokers, the nation’s oldest minority real estate association in America, issued a report last June on the State of Housing in Black America. According to the report, “Blacks today have a higher homeownership rate than in 1921 and have the legal right to live in the community of their choice. Yet the Black to Non-Hispanic White homeownership gap has increased over the past 80 years. Today, fewer than 45 percent of Black households own their homes compared to nearly 75 percent of White households.”

The report also states: Institutional discrimination continues to permeate almost every aspect of the real estate industry, including many practices of federal housing agencies. Underappraisal of home values in Black neighborhoods, inappropriate use of outdated or otherwise inaccurate and misleading credit scoring models, and unfair mortgage pricing schemes that penalize Blacks for the decades of forced economic deprivation they’ve experienced are among the practices that today continue to impede Black homeownership progress. 

Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA), Chairman of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, released a statement on the 53rd anniversary of the Fair Housing Act in April. He wrote, “While the enactment of the Fair Housing Act was the beginning of the end of this American horror story, housing discrimination, and its lasting effects are not yet a thing of the past.”

Beyer said he agreed with Richard Rothstein, one of the leading experts on housing discrimination, who told him, “It is the government’s responsibility to remedy residential segregation and other effects of housing discrimination since it created them.”

“I could not agree more,” Beyer concluded, “Congress must continue to right this historic wrong for current and future generations.”

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday, may we all be inspired to continue the fight for equality and justice, particularly in the area of fair housing and increased Black homeownership not only here in the District but across the country, as well.

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Austin R. Cooper Jr.

Austin R. Cooper, Jr., serves as the President of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc. The firm provides legislative, political and communications counsel in Washington, D.C., for governmental, nonprofit and...

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