Martin Luther King in Chicago: Somebody Nobody Sent

The man who is recognized every year with a national holiday is a secular saint, but it wasn’t always so. In Chicago, King battled not only a wily mayor but an unfriendly press and decades of history… but not a history that was well known.

Photo: runneralan2004 (CC by 2.0)

There is no surer basis for fanaticism than bad history, which is invariably history oversimplified. —Diarmaid MacCulloch

Today, Edward McClelland quotes a civil-rights movement truism: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close you get, as long as you don’t get too high. In the North, he doesn’t care how high you get, as long as you don’t get too close.” As I read through old Tribune coverage of Martin Luther King from southern marches and sit-ins through his move to Chicago, I could see that truth—best articulated by Randy Newman in “Rednecks"—play out as his cause moved closer to the city.

In 1958, when King’s activism was safely confined to the legally segregated south, the Tribune editorial board saw fit to praise King as “an influential champion of both equalitarian ends and nonviolent means,” in an editorial entitled “Portrait of a Christian":

The ends he has sought have drawn down on King the animosity of many, and the means he has championed have earned him the hostility of some. The motives of the Negro woman who attacked him in a Harlem store are unclear, almost certainly irrational. [Izola Curry was determined to be a paranoid schizophrenic, and after a stint at Bellvue she was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane.]

The reasons for wishing King a speedy and thoro recovery are clear. These reasons should be felt not only by those who support the goals for which Martin Luther King has worked effectively, but also by those among his opponents who wish to see orderly processes prevail over lawless rioting…. He has been unafraid when confronted with intimidating violence, and magnanimous under extreme provocation.

That was before King decided to take his fight to the de facto segregation of the north. Four and a half years later—about a month after King was jailed in Birmingham, and ten days after excerpts from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” appeared in the New York Post Sunday Magazine—the Trib editorial board huffed and puffed at King for daring to suggest that Chicago was “as much a segregated city as Birmingham,” under the headline “We Are Fed Up":

This arrogant and untrue statement was unworthy of the speaker, and it harmed his cause. Frankly, we are sick and tired of such statements, especially when they come from nonresidents of Chicago.

[snip]

Instead of evading its responsibilities towards the Negroes, the Chicago government has often used the force of law to protect their rights. Chicago’s determination to protect minority rights has been demonstrated so often that it is well understood, and as one result there has been no serious violence for several years.

[snip]

When these Chicago Negro leaders speak up, they are heard respectfully. But we don’t need any agitators from the south.

The message was clear—Chicago might have its problems, but we’re not like those people, the Bull Conners of the South whose response to King had generated iconic imagery of injustice just a few weeks before.

But the editorial board’s claim that there had been “no serious violence for several years” was at best a misleadingly narrow definition of “several” or “serious.” In 1957, “6,000 to 7,000 whites attacked 100 black picnickers who occupied a portion of the park that had previously been ‘reserved’ for whites,” Arnold Hirsh writes in Making the Second Ghetto. “More than 500 police were needed to calm the area after two days of disturbances. On the first day alone at least forty-seven persons were injured and sixty to seventy cars stoned.” In 1960, a white mob stoned black bathers at Rainbow Beach, leading to the newly memorialized “wade-ins” the next year (which, to give due credit, were well-defended by the CPD and reform police chief O.W. Wilson).

The claim was strikingly glib, coming after decades of repeated flare-ups of racially-based mob violence—in particular a 15-year period that Hirsh calls “an era of hidden violence,” encompassing both mobs in the thousands and single incidents of terrorism. And the very brief period of relative calm credited to “Chicago’s determination to protect minority rights” had a darker side, Hirsh argues—the institutionalization of segregation:

Previously, white hostility had been expressed primarily through private means—violence, voluntary agreements among realtors, and restrictive covenants were the most powerful forces determining the pattern of black settlement. Before the Depression, government involvement was generally limited to the spotty judicial enforcement of privately drawn restriction agreements. With the emergence of redevelopment, renewal, and public housing, however, government took an active hand not merely in reinforcing prevailing patters of segregation but in lending them a permanence never seen before. The implication of government in the second ghetto was so pervasive, so deep, that it virtually constituted a new form of de jure segregation.

The ongoing racial violence of the precedeeing decades bled over into the cooly rational process of redevelopment, as fear helped reshape the city of the 1950s and 1960s, but the uneasy peace wouldn’t last. The “Gin Bottle Riot” would follow the next year in Dixmoor; in 1965, the Lawndale riot; in 1966, the Division Street riot and the violence against King in Gage Park; and in 1968, the riots that destroyed the West Side following King’s murder:

Businesses also left in droves. The commercial life of the west side was literally gutted; to this day, residents complain that it is impossible for them to shop in their own neighborhoods. And factories left, taking their valuable jobs to the suburbs. At the time of the riots, for instance, there was a thriving machine-tool industry centered along Lake Street, west of the Loop. Many of the firms there closed their doors and fled to places like Elk Grove Village, where an opportunistic developer established a new machine-tool center in the safety of the suburbs.

Hirsh argues that the city reaped what it had sewn from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s: “The implications of this racial settlement for the turbulent 1960s are clear, if in need of further explanation. Most important, perhaps, the black uprisings of those years can now be viewed as a ‘backlash’ to concrete events and not simply as random acts of aggression.”

When King arrived in Chicago, he and his marchers took the brunt of the blame for the violence in the streets, as the Tribune editorial board turned against the man they’d praised when he kept his “agitation” below the Mason-Dixon:

The “civil rights” marchers are only hurting themselves and their cause. Chicago is retrogressing to the condition of a frontier town in early days, where shots are fired in the air and challenges to combat are hurled. The town marshals are busier than in a TV western.

[snip]

Sunday’s march was thru the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, a community of modest but good homes. Families ordinarily would be enjoying the chance to sit on the front porch reading the paper, to sprinkle their lawns and work in their gardens, or go to the park or beach. Instead, they are confronted by a shuffling procession of strangers carrying signs and posing as martyrs. The spectacle is repulsive to right-thinking people.

Later, they suggested that King be charged under pre-RICO criminal syndicalism statutes for causing people to throw rocks at him. I’m not joking; I don’t think they were, either (emphasis mine):

The Rev. Martin Luther King of Atlanta is expected to lead another of these forays into the Gage Park area, where whites were baited into a near-riot last week-end which resulted in injuries to some 50 persons, a score of whom were policemen, and a dozen cars were burned.

This voice of the establishment was simply translating the anger of the general community into a slightly more acceptable form, as Rick Perlstein found when rummaging through letters sent to Paul Douglas in the wake of King’s Chicago sojourn, which he found while researching his epic Nixonland (“Reading them in that archive, I felt like I was peering into the dark soul of America to a depth I’d never thought possible"):

Recently we members of the Marquette Park area of Chicago witnessed violence over the so called subject of civil rights. Since the Civil Rights Act Act was passed all we have seen is violence, riots, and general defiance of the laws of our land by the Negro population under the guise of this nebulous term, civil rights.

[snip]

It is safe to say that not a single white person has ever moved into a negro neighorhood yet there has been over a million white people dumped, shoved, or pushed out of their homes by expansion of negroes….

[snip]

It is my firm belief, and of all my neighbors, that king should be taken into custody, charged with fomenting civil disorder and anarchy…. Today, the insufferable arrogance of this character places him on a pedestal as a dark-skinned Hitler.

The historical irony of this is apparent: King came to Chicago to address the city’s segregation, particularly in the form of housing, which had been driven and institutionalized by decades of mob action, vandalism, arson, and bombings. The hate that King drew into the open had been expressed year after year all over the city—the Airport Homes, Fernwood Homes, Park Manor, Englewood—but it was frequently disappeared into the back pages or described obliquely as a “demonstration,” as Hirsh discovered with the Fernwood Homes riot, which took 1,000 police officers to quell after a mob of up to 5,000 raged over eight square miles of the city’s south side. Incidents of domestic terrorism received little notice, though they were frequent:

From May 1944 through July 1946, forty-six black residences were assaulted (nine were attacked twice and one home was targeted on five separate occasions) in the most serious wave of racial disorder since the World War I era. Beginning in January 1945 there was at least one attack every month (save for March 1946), and twenty-nine of the onslaughts were arson-bombings. At least three persons were killed in the incidents. Yet, despite this upsurge in deadly violence, the major dailies provided “scant coverage” and the “white community was unaware of the situation.”

But by the mid-1960s, Chicago’s history of postwar racial violence wasn’t part of the narrative. The state violence of the South was an acceptable target, and one King was able to fight because its structures were so open. But the more complex situation in Chicago, where vigilante de facto segregation quietly morphed into official civic de facto segregation, was a harder battle—even Martin Luther King was somebody nobody sent.

 

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