MLK Day: The Chicago Days & Today's Urban Economics
I pulled the selection below from The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. For those of us living in the receiving cities of the 70 year flood of Black people north and west from the Jim Crow South, King's decision to turn north and confront the economic and housing discrimination of Chicago is painfully contemporary.
The gentrification we see in neighborhood's like Denver's 5-Points (called the 'Harlem of the West' due the vibrant culture and jazz scene) are the same historically Black neighborhoods where migrants were cloistered by housing discrimination two and three generations ago. Black people fleeing the South arrived to moderately expanded freedoms, but in most cases still did not own enough land, have the opportunities to build enough wealth, or have access to enough resources to develop long-term resilience against the return of development capital when white-flight ran it's course and cities became cool again.
So let's look back at King's later confrontation with White Supremacy and the complex machinations of economically-driven structural racism. Let's celebrate his legacy by remembering that racism isn't just an Alabama thing. Let's be reminded that economic struggles among the "white working class" have always been married to race in America, and how ferociously we still cling to our property values. And let's lean back into the Poor People's movement King launched to strike at the roots of injustice.
Chicago was a turning point for King. His movement was aging, its actions drawing greater skepticism and its success leaving him with fewer obvious dragons to slay. It was a campaign looking for a cause. The inroads into southern segregation gave King a greater awareness of unresolved tensions in the North in the wake of the Great Migration.
"Negros have continued to flee from behind the Cotton Curtain," King told a crowd at Buckingham Fountain near the Loop, testing out a new theme in virgin territory. "But now they find that after years of indifference and exploitation, Chicago has not turned out to be the New Jerusalem."
Yet the very thing that made black life hard in the North, the very nature of norhtern hostility -- unwritten, mercurial, opaque, and eminently deniable -- made it hard for King to nail down an obvious right-versus-wrong cause to protest.
Blacks in the North could already vote and sit at a lunch counter or anywhere they wanted on a elevated train. yet they were hemmed in and isolated into two overcrowded sections of the city -- the South Side and the West Side -- restricted in the jobs they could hold and the mortgages they could get, their children attending segregated and inferior schools, not be edict as in the South but by circumstance in the North, with the results pretty much the same. The unequal living conditions produced the expected unequal results: blacks working long hours for overpriced flats, their children left unsupervised and open to gangs, the resulting rise in crime and drugs, with few people able to get out and the problems so complex as to make it impossible to identify a single cause or solution.
King was running headlong into what the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called the Northern Paradox. In the North, Myrdal wrote, "almost everybody is against discrimination in general, but, at the same time, almost everybody practices discrimination in his own personal affairs" -- that is, by not allowing blacks into unions or clubhouses, certain jobs, and white neighborhoods, indeed, avoiding social interaction overall.
"It is the culmination of all these personal discriminations," he continued, "which creates the color bar in the Nor, and, for the Negro, causes unusually severe unemployment, crowded housing conditions, crime and vice. About this social process, the ordinary white Northerner keeps sublimely ignorant and unconcerned."
Thus any civil rights campaign in the North would not be an attack on outrageous laws that, with enough grit and fortitude, could be overturned with the stroke of a pen. Instead, King would be fighting the ill-defined fear and antipathy that made northern whites flee at the sight of a black neighbor, turn away blacks at realty offices, or not hire them if they chose. The "enemy" was a feeling, a general unease that led to the flight of white people and businesses and sucked the resources out of the ghettos the migrants were quarantined into. No laws could make frightened white northerners care about blacks enough to permit them full access to the system they dominated.
"So long as the city is dominated by whites, whether because of their numbers without force or by their force if they were in the minority," the Chicago Tribune once wrote, "there will be limitations placed on the black people."
Sill, despite the odds, King was compelled to go north -- was called to it, he said -- as had a good portion of his people in the still-unfolding Migration. He had made the journey himself when he went to Boston University for graduate school and while there met his wife, Coretta, another southerner. King's campaign in the North was "in one sense simply reacting to a major shift in the epicenter of black America," the historian James R. Ralph wrote. "It was following the great demographic flow of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North."
King actually moved into an apartment in the most hardscrabble section of town, the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, where the poorest and most recent arrivals from the South had shakily established themselves. He had a chesslike series of encounters with Mayor Richard J. Daley, the mayor-boss of Chicago, who managed to outwit the civil rights leader at nearly every turn. For one thing, Daley knew not to make the same mistakes as his southern counterparts. He met with King, appearing cooperative rather than ignoring him or having him thrown into jail. He vowed to protect the marchers with a heavy policy presence that sometimes outnumbered the marchers. It worked so well that the protesters rarely had the chance to contrast their peaceable courage against foaming-at-the-mouth supremacists because Daley's police force didn't let any white mob get near them, which kept the pretests off the news and kept the movement from gaining traction, just as Daley had hoped.
That is until, after months of buildup, King went to march against housing segregation in a neighborhood called Marquette Park on the city's southwest side. This was a working-class neighborhood of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, and italians who had not long since gotten their starter bungalows and were standing their ground against the very thought of colored people moving in.
It was August 5, 1966. A fist-shaking crowd of some four thousand residents had gathered in advance. Upon his arrival, they cursed King with epithets from a knoll overlooking the march. Many people in the crowd waved Confederate flags. Some wore Nazi-like helmets. One placard read KING WOULD LOOK GOOD WITH A KNIFE IN HIS BACK.
The march had barely begun when a heckler hurled a rock as big as a fist a King, striking him in the head, just above the right ear. He fell to his knees, and as he tried to get up, the crowd pelted the demonstrators with bottles, eggs, firecrackers, and more rocks, Some in the crowd turned and smashed rocks into cars and buses that passed with colored people in them. Some twelve hundred police officers and two hundred plainclothesmen had gathered in anticipation of the trouble, but this was one of the rare occasions that they were outnumbered by white residents primed for confrontation.
As the eight hundred King supporters tried to carry on the march, they passed men, women, and children on their front stoops, who called the marchers "cannibals," "savages," and worse. column of three hundred jeering white teenagers sat in the middle of the street to block the marchers' path. The police dispersed the youths with nightsticks waving, and the march was able to resume. But the teenagers repositioned themselves half a block down and sat in the street again. It took a second charge from the police to break up the young hecklers.
When the march wound down, the mob chased the buses carrying King's people away. Rising in agitation that lasted for hours, the mob smashed an effigy of King, overturned a car on Marquette Road, stoned other cars, and fought policy trying to clear the place out, requiring reinforcements to beat the mob back with clubs and shots fired into the air. In the end, some thirty people were injured and forty were arrested.
Some of King's aides had warned him not to go to Chicago. He said he had to. "I have to do this," he said as he tried to steady himself after the stoning, "to expose myself---to bring this hate into the open."
He had marched in the deepest corners of Alabama but was unprepared for what he was in for in Chicago. "I have seen many demonstrations in the South," he said that violent day in the Promised Land. "But I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today."