In our first local Town Hall of the NBC Learn "Finishing the Dream" series, Chicago civil rights veterans talk about the virulent racism that came out in Chicago when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his movement north in 1965-66.
Why did Martin Luther King, Jr. Call Chicago Worse Than Mississippi?
MARION BROOKS: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Chicago many times during the 1960s to support the black freedom struggle. But in 1966, he captured national headlines when he moved into a dingy West Side apartment to protest housing discrimination and to shine a spotlight on poor living conditions of the poor. He participated in two dramatic marches through all-white neighborhoods, appealing to Mayor Daley to reform the discriminatory housing practices all across Chicago.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: [IN CLIP] If that is any doubt in anybody’s mind concerning whether we have a movement here in Chicago, you ought to be in this church tonight.
NARRATOR: [IN CLIP]
The civil rights struggle hit close to home in 1966 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. staged a series of marches and demonstrations in Chicago.
MAYOR RICHARD J. DALEY: [IN CLIP] Well, I asked for their answer to the solution of many of these questions, and they had no solution. They had the recitation of the problem, but I said, “Well, how do you eliminate the slum and blight overnight? What would you men do that we haven’t done in Chicago?”
MARTIN LUTHER KING: [IN CLIP] We aren’t going to m arch with any Molotov cocktails – that isn’t our movement. We aren’t going to march with any weapons – that isn’t our movement.
POLICE OFFICER: Get outta here!
WHITE PROTESTOR: I live here!
REPORTER: [IN CLIP] How do you feel about this reception?
MARTIN LUTHER KING: [IN CLIP] 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’ve seen here in Chicago.
LESTER HOLT: A lot of people remember when he said that and it certainly sent shockwaves throughout this city on certain levels. Let me bring in Father Michael Pfleger. You were a kid, saw Reverend King march through Marquette Park. How did that inspire your own personal struggle on behalf of social justice? And did you realize what was talking place then?
FATHER MICHAEL L. PFLEGER, SAINT SABINA CHURCH:
I really didn’t. I went to Marquette Park with two of my friends, riding our bikes, out of curiosity. Because I had heard for weeks about this man, Martin Luther King, and heard about what he was coming to Chicago to do. We rode over there out of curiosity and saw two things I never forget in my life. One was the hate. I never saw such hate in my life, and saw it from people that lived in my neighborhood, went to the church that I went to, were parents of children that I went to school with, and I never saw that side of them. These are the people I see at church on Sunday, and now here they are with all this hate and this anger. The second thing, though, was Dr. King, who has walking through all this and never responded, not one time, with anger, not one time with raising his voice. It was always “we’re brothers, we’re sisters, we must learn to live together.” And I said to that day when I left, “Either this man is crazy or he has some kind of power I want to know about.” Chicago was looked as being the Promised Land, everything was fine, and he came in and exposed all the racism, the poverty, the injustices and the segregation that existed here.
LESTER HOLT: But was anybody talking about it before?
HERMENE HARTMAN, PUBLISHER, N’DIGO MAGAZINE: One of the most important things to remember about King in Chicago – they decided, Dr. King, that it was time for the movement to come to Chicago to look at racism in the north. King did not come to Chicago with a Welcome Wagon. He was resisted. We had six older men at that time and they all resisted, the “Silent Six” they called them. The ministers locked Dr. King out. There were two ministers that welcomed him. One was Clay Evans and the other was Bishop Arthur Brazier. But they organized to lock him out because he was – according to Mayor Daley – he was a “disruptive force.”
LESTER HOLT: Dorothy’s shaking her hand here.
DOROTHY TILLMAN, ALDERMAN AND ACTIVIST: I want to inject because I kind of disagree with you. I want to make sure that this is correct. I advanced Dr. King to Chicago. Now, we had more than two ministers that supported Dr. King. We had A. P. Jackson from Liberty Baptist Church. We had Reverend Freeman. We had Reverend Lambert. We had a handful of black ministers that would do it. And we always did our movement out of a church, but no minister would allow us other than Clay Evans. Reverend Clay Evans was one that stood with us, very strongly. And Daley stopped his church from being built because he supported us.
But, so we could not find a church to work out of. That’s why we ended up in the white church on the West Side of Chicago.
REVEREND DR. LEON FINNEY, METROPOLITAN APOSTOLIC COMMUNITY CHURCH: The key thing, I think, is to remember something that is very fundamental about this. These kids can read about the recitation. The real issue, I think, was the hatred that was here in Chicago which is where Father Pfleger had the conversation. And the real question is whether or not the hatred and the hostility between races still persists. Because at this moment these kids are going to have deal with Chicago as it is. And, it is still alive and well.
REV. FINNEY: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute! If you think about what is going on in the neighborhoods of the city of Chicago – when you think about all the vacant lots in the city of Chicago – when you think about all the poverty in the city of Chicago – when you think about what’s happening with the displacement of public housing and what is the consequence of the transformation of public housing – you think about all the disbursement of crime and violence throughout the city of Chicago. These kids have got to think and think through at this particular point, not yesterday, but what are we going to do about our neighborhoods right today? That’s what’s got to happen!
MARION BROOKS: Let’s take it right now to a student…
Well, good evening. My name is Jacara Jackson. I’m a senior at National Louis University. Unfortunately, subprime and predatory lending are two huge major factors behind the housing crisis for African-Americans. And as a senior in college and starting law school soon, I would like to be, you know, a homeowner eventually. My question to you all is, what is your advice for our generation so that we don’t have to go through this mess?
REV. FINNEY: Yeah, well, I think that’s a community development question. Let’s take a look at it. You raised an earlier issue and that was the predatory lending. Before Dr. King got here, there was something called a Contract Buyers League. And the Contract Buyers League was formed because black folk in the city of Chicago could not get a mortgage without going under contract. Well, you take another look at that and say, well, what has happened different at this particular point? It’s still difficult for black folk to get a mortgage. We're still living in too many slums. We still have too many vacant lots. So the real question is, what do you do for self, and where do you start building? We’ve lost in a generation we’ve lost five black banks that once were here, able to break the cycle of poverty as it related to acquiring equity. My sense is that at some moment we have to stop and say, wait a minute, what are we doing with our money, do we continue to bank outside? Or do we demand the right to organize our own financial institution and organize our own devices for investment?
LESTER HOLT: Let’s get across the room here we have another student who has a question.
Hi, my name is Tateanna Foster and I attend Rich East High School. My question to all the panelists is in light of the high crime rate in the South Side and the West Side communities, what are the things that the citizens of these communities can do to reiterate Dr. Martin Luther King’s six principles of peace, to redirect where we’re going right now?
MARION BROOKS: Father Pfleger, why don’t you grab –I know you all have been very –
REV. FINNEY: I think he and I are on the same page. Well, go ahead, Father.
FATHER PFLEGER: Just to answer that. First of all, I think Dr. King made it very clear that violence never ends violence. You can’t gun your way out of anything. And, the truth of the matter is that right now what Dr. King did was mobilize communities, mobilize houses, mobilized houses, mobilize parents, mobilize neighborhoods to set the agenda, not wait for somebody in to come and be the agenda. My big problem is today I don’t think Dr. King would be saying, let’s put blue lights in. Dr. King would be saying be a blue light in your neighborhood. We wouldn't be calling 311 to get well-being checks for people across the street, we would be doing the well-being check for the people across the street. Dr. King would be mobilizing blocks and neighborhoods and homes to take charge and take control of their community and set the agenda for the city.
LESTER HOLT: We’ve got to take a break.
Systemic racism is both a theoretical concept and a reality. As a theory, it is premised on the research-supported claim that the United States was founded as a racist society, that racism is thus embedded in all social institutions, structures and social relations within our society.
Chicago, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard J. Daley, Mayor, Housing Discrimination, Demonstrations, Marches, Slums, SCLC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Mortgages, Counterdemonstrations, Mobs, Marquette Park, Blacks, African Americans, Whites, Immigrants, Church, Clay Evans, Arthur Brazier, Michael L. Pfleger, Hermene Hartman, Dorothy Tillman, Leon Finney, Cliff Kelley, Jacara Jackson, Tateanna Foster