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What Martin Luther King Jr. Wanted For Chicago in 1966

The drum major for justice was also a drum major for an O’Hare extension of the Blue Line, children with learning disabilities—a new concept that had just been forged in Chicago—and a higher local minimum wage.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in front of Friendship Baptist Church in Marquette Park, August 5, 1966   Photo: Chicago Tribune archives

Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Chicago in 1966 is remembered for his focus on segregation and slum housing; the hostility shown to him by residents and the establishment, causing him to remark that “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate”; and ultimately the political logrolling that Mayor Daley used to effectively neutralize King.

But behind the headlines, King came in with a list of surprisingly specific policy demands, specific to Chicago and the state of Illinois—14 of which he posted on the door of City Hall in the manner of his historic namesake’s theses.

A couple weeks before King’s rally at Soldier Field on June 26, the Tribune reported on his preliminary policy platform for the Chicago Freedom Movement. It ranged well beyond housing, and much of it came to pass—even if it took decades.

A two-dollar minimum wage in 1966 is the equivalent of $14.61 in 2014 dollars. As you probably recall, City Council set a $13 target for 2019; the bill included the fact that “the true value of lllinois’ current minimum wage of $8.25 per hour [is] 32 percent below the 1968 level of $10.71 per hour (in 2013 dollars).”

Chicago still doesn’t have a local income tax, but most cities don’t.

Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel laureate, drum major for justice, wanted to extend what is now the Blue Line. And that happened, though he didn’t live to see it. Here’s a map of the El in 1965, when it ran only to Logan Square. In 1970, it was extended to Jefferson Park; in 1984, to O’Hare.

New Yorkers, take particular note of this. When thinking about what King would want in today’s world, maybe one of those things is an N train extension. Unfortunately, I’m not aware that Dr. King ever took a position on bus rapid transit.

In 1966, the concept of “learning disabilities” was actually quite new; the term had recently been coined by a University of Illinois professor, Samuel Kirk, at a Chicago conference in 1963. Six years later, it entered the bureaucratic lexicon with the “Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act.”

It wasn’t until 1991, meanwhile, that the state passed a law mandating that black history be taught in all schools; in 2013, Chicago Public Schools began teaching black history year-round after the bill’s author pressed for a lawsuit to bring CPS into compliance with the law.

Today Chicago has struggled to replace 25,000 units, much less adding 10,000 per year, but scattered-site housing has increasingly replaced high-rise public housing nationwide since the Gautreaux lawsuit targeted public-housing segregation—a lawsuit that began to take shape in 1965, and which was inseparable from the Chicago Freedom Movement.

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