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"Launching the National Fair Housing Debate: A Closer Look at the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement"


Forty years ago this year, civil rights activists launched the first large-scale fair housing campaign in the country. By the mid-1960’s, legally sanctioned segregation was clearly crumbling. Protest in the south had led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, addressing some of the worst racial injustices. But the subtler injustice of the north, which perpetuated the concentration of millions of poor black Americans in ghettoes, had remained largely intact. Inequality of opportunity stemming from de facto housing and school segregation was – and remains – a pressing civil rights concern. In 1966 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in conjunction with other Chicago-based groups, attempted to adapt the nonviolent protest strategy so successful in the south to the northern urban environment. This experiment was neither a failure nor a complete success, but it did manage to spotlight the racial injustice of the northern ghetto.

Studying the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement is not merely a historical exercise. The social problems targeted by civil rights groups in Chicago forty years ago – especially racially segregated housing and education, and the resulting inequality of opportunity – are still pressing problems. Understanding the root of these problems, and the obstacles faced by organizers in Chicago, is essential to formulating effective solutions today. As historian David Garrow notes:

    The story of [the Freedom Movement] can illuminate our lives. The struggle in Chicago gave new and sometimes detailed visibility to the color line in its metropolitan form, and its story can inform our understanding of racial issues today. Of course, the desirability, viability, and effectiveness of the goals of that movement – school desegregation and open housing – and of its strategies – boycotts and marches – are now questioned. But the principles and tactics of that movement were controversial in their own time, and any thoughtful judgment about their relevance – then or now – will take account of these events in Chicago.

To coincide with the anniversary of the Chicago movement, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council has prepared this interactive chronology examining the events of 1966 in detail.

Civil Rights Activity in Chicago

Chicago Circa 1960: Basic Demographic Information

Chicago was certainly not devoid of civil rights activism before the SCLC came to town. For example, the Soldier’s Field Rally of 1964, keynoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., drew 57,000 Chicagoans on a rainy afternoon. The city was home to the north’s largest and most effective grassroots civil rights organization, an umbrella group called the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). Headed by Al Raby, the CCCO had been increasingly active in the years leading up to 1966, spearheading a major effort to remove school superintendent Benjamin Willis. Superintendent Willis, a well-intentioned but highly traditional educator, had earned the ire of the black community by refusing to take any initiative to desegregate the city’s schools. The high points of the anti-Willis campaign were two massive school boycotts in 1963 and 1964 (in the first over 200,000 black students stayed home) which demonstrated the broad support school desegregation commanded within the black community.

Chicago schools were severely overcrowded in the early sixties, and the problem was most pressing in poor black neighborhoods (see map of Chicago’s Black residential areas and schools). Students in these underprivileged areas were often forced to study in makeshift classrooms located in ill-equipped trailers; those black students that requested transfers to nearby, predominantly white, less crowded institutions were refused. During the summer of 1965, the CCCO and other Chicago organizations rallied around the school desegregation issue. There were almost daily protests in front of city hall, as well as several night marches into Mayor Richard Daley’s neighborhood. Still, the city refused to make concessions, and by the fall it was clear that the school desegregation campaign was running out of steam. Raby and the CCCO began to actively recruit the SCLC, hoping its presence would revitalize the school desegregation movement and force Daley to the bargaining table.

When the SCLC joined with the CCCO to create the Chicago Freedom Movement, it insisted on an agenda much broader than the school desegregation campaign. The 1966 civil rights campaign in Chicago envisioned an end to the social and economic system that perpetuated de facto housing segregation in the north – the urban “slum” which the SCLC would call “a system of internal colonialism.”

The “People to People” Tour

In late July of 1965, the SCLC ran a five-city exploratory northern tour, designed to assess the reality of the urban racial situation and choose the site of the organization’s pilot northern campaign. King, head of the SCLC, spoke in each city visited and met with local rights leaders. Encouraged by repeated invitations to visit from the CCCO, King made Chicago – along with Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. – a stop on the tour. His reception in Chicago was warmest, a strong mark in its favor when the SCLC prepared to choose a northern location. Turf battles with other rights leaders prevented King from stopping in New York as planned and nearly forced him to skip his visit to Philadelphia. After the tour, the SCLC was in no hurry to commit itself, and thought only vaguely of developing a plan for the northern initiative “over the next year or two.”

Watts, August 11 - 15, 1965.

In August 1965, riots erupted in Watts, an economically devastated black ghetto in Los Angeles, galvanizing King and the SCLC into rapid northern action. Thirty people died before the situation was brought under control, and King felt compelled to travel to Los Angeles and do whatever he could to stop the violence. Confronted with the physical destruction of Watts and shaken by the anti-white venom of the ghetto’s residents, King began to see the subtle racism that perpetuated the injustice of the northern ghetto as a civil rights issue of immediate importance. Watts played a crucial role in turning King’s attention to the environmental factors, the poverty, racial isolation, and poor housing that plagued the ghetto and led to violence. The Freedom Movement, with its stated goal of ending slums, would embody this shift in his focus. King’s experiences in Watts strengthened his resolve to launch a full-scale nonviolent initiative in a northern urban center. He recognized that, “Watts was not only a crisis for Los Angeles and the Northern cities of our nation: It was a crisis for the nonviolent movement.”

Choosing Chicago

On September 1st, 1965, King and his aide Andrew Young announced that the SCLC would launch its first full-scale northern initiative in Chicago. They emphasized plans to cooperate with the city’s existing civil rights groups, and praised CCCO highly. The SCLC they claimed would begin by taking up the mantle of school desegregation, an issue that CCCO had been pushing all summer. King and Young made clear that Chicago appealed to the SCLC because of the complicated nature of its problems. Echoing the group’s reasons for choosing Birmingham and Selma as targets, Young stated, “if northern problems can be solved there, they can be solved anywhere” (see Chicago Tribune).The power of Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine – Daley was often described as the “last big city boss”– was seen by the civil rights leaders as positive, allowing him to swiftly institute the necessary changes once the movement’s pressure “sharpened his conscience.” The advance work of SCLC’s James Bevel and Bernard LaFayette in Chicago was also critical in the city’s selection. LaFayette came to Chicago in 1964 to work at American Friends Service Committee as a community organizer and trainer in non-violent direct action in Chicago’s west side. Bevel soon began to make short visits to Chicago to work with LaFayette; and by 1966 he was here constantly. Bevel would become SCLC’s field director for the Chicago campaign.

Setting the Objectives

From the earliest planning stages in August of 1965, the SCLC-CCCO alliance promised to be problematic. To begin with, the CCCO, composed of a conglomeration of civil rights groups with their own highly developed, often divergent, agendas and approaches, struggled to define itself and maintain its own tenuous unity. Critics contended that the CCCO was too far removed from the black masses, and the SCLC vision of a “nonviolent army” in Chicago, composed of a million individuals, underscored the need for community outreach. Also, the exact nature of the SCLC/CCCO relationship, in practical, organizational terms, was never clear.

Prominent historian David Garrow has noted that, “The interplay between those two arms of the Chicago Freedom Movement – the indigenous activists whose organizational affiliations ranged accross a wide gamut of groups, and the new-to-Chicago staffers of King’s SCLC – is almost as significant a part of the Chicago movement’s history as is the more publicly visible interplay between the movement itself and Mayor Daley’s city government.”

Other participants in the campaign have observed that tensions between CCCO and SCLC staff were less significant than some historians have suggested – and that the more significant tension was between the “Agenda Committee,” headed by King and Raby and consisting of the leaders of the most active local organizations and the “Action Committee,” headed by Bevel and other seasoned practitioners of direct action.

Beginning January 5th, King and SCLC representatives met with CCCO leaders in Chicago for a three-day series of meetings to codify the objectives of their joint initiative, dubbed the Chicago Freedom Movement. To the dismay of some members of the CCCO (and the SCLC’s local field staff), the SCLC advocated abandoning the school desegregation campaign in favor of a broader initiative against “slums,” the strategy for which was only vaguely articulated. The resulting thirteen-page document stated that, “The Chicago problem is simply a matter of economic exploitation . . . This economic exploitation is crystallized in the SLUM,” which was “a system of internal colonialism.” The Chicago fight would be a broad one, against the institutions that perpetuated the ghetto. The SCLC had no precedent for such a drive in its narrower Southern campaigns. This was uncharted territory.

Operation Breadbasket

On February 11th, the Freedom Movement launched a Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, an organization that worked with major employers to secure more positions for black workers. Despite a strong record of success, the four-year-old program, which King had hoped to expand nationwide, had only one chapter, in Atlanta. Jesse Jackson worked with Chicago clergy and the SCLC to generate support for a Chicago branch of Breadbasket, and he assumed leadership of the new Chicago chapter. Breadbasket was unique in that it commanded the widespread and active support of black religious leaders who were often wary of committing themselves to the leadership of the Freedom Movement. A close colleague of Jackson stated that, “The introduction of Breadbasket into Chicago was at first something of a concession to several ministers who agreed with the overall goals of the movement, but who wanted to pursue a program under their own supervision rather than merge into the mass actions.” The program proved extremely capable at getting blacks more jobs from key Chicago industries, and represents both one of the smoothest collaborations between local and SCLC leaders, and one of the indisputable successes of the 1966 movement. Jackson went on to become Operation Breadbasket’s national chairman in 1967. He left in 1971 to form People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH).

King Assumes “Trusteeship” of a West Side Tenement

On February 23rd, 1966, three civil rights groups took control of a dilapidated west side slum building under King’s leadership. The activists announced they would collect the tenants’ rent, totaling $400 a month, and use it to pay for necessary repairs to the building. In response to a reporter asking whether he thought this action was legal, King said, “I won’t say that it is illegal, but I would call it supra-legal. The moral question is far more important than the legal one.” Immediately after making this statement, King and his followers began cleaning up the debris in the building (see Chicago Tribune). Civil rights staffers, hoping to expose an archetypal greedy slumlord through their action, were disappointed to learn that the owner of the building was a poor, ailing 83-year old man with no other source of income. The Chicago Press roundly denounced King’s action, and the county welfare department stated it would withhold rents from the building’s welfare recipients. The event did serve to shed light on the deplorable conditions of many of the city’s slum buildings, upon examining the commandeered building, the city of Chicago charged its owner with 23 building code violations. Just a little over a week later, the city announced a massive code enforcement program of door to door inspections, designed to force tenement owners of 15,000 buildings in three west side communities to bring their structures up to code building (see Chicago Tribune). This type of rapid response to embarrassing criticism was typical of Daley’s Chicago, and often served to blunt civil rights protest before it forced the sort of full-blown confrontation that might lead to substantial change. The slum-building takeover spurned one unauthorized imitator on Chicago’s South Side, but ultimately faded from the forefront of the Freedom drive.

The Freedom Festival

The highpoint of the Freedom Movement’s efforts at mass community organizing was the Freedom Festival. Held on March 12th, 1966, this Saturday night concert featured Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Dick Gregory, and of course, King. The event raised over $100,000 for the movement and a racially diverse crowd of 12,000 packed Chicago’s International Amphitheater. King called on Chicagoans to take part in a nonviolent campaign of direct action starting in the spring, and the mood within the movement following the festival was buoyant.

Choosing an Issue: The Open Housing Campaign

The Chicago Freedom Movement suffered from a lack of direction throughout the winter and spring of 1966. The subject of the movement’s long-anticipated direct action phase remained undecided almost right up until the opening of the campaign at the beginning of July. The persuasive voice of William Moyer, a housing expert with the American Friends Service Committee who had spent years documenting the extent of housing discrimination in Chicago, was instrumental in the Freedom Movement’s decision to focus on open housing. Bevel, the SCLC’s head of direct action, recognized that open housing was not the most pressing issue facing the black ghetto-dweller, but it promised to be a rallying point, an opportunity for him to “stand up and be a man, to declare that he was a human being and would henceforth expect to be treated as one.” That an open housing campaign also seemed most likely, of all the options considered, to produce the kind of dramatic confrontation that drew volunteers also contributed to its selection. As one Freedom Movement veteran put it, the driving force behind a successful civil rights initiative, “was not money; it was not organized bodies of workers; it was volunteers. It was people pouring in out of their conscience to help . . . If they didn’t come, you closed down.” One after another as spring faded into summer, Chicago civil rights leaders threw their support to an open housing campaign.

The Meredith March

On June 6th, James Meredith was shot on the second day of his Walk Against Fear in Mississippi. King, delaying the start of direct action in Chicago, flew immediately to Meredith’s side and with other civil rights leaders pledged to continue his march. What should have been a show of movement unity quickly deteriorated, and soon differences between the rights leaders could no longer be hidden from the public. Stokely Carmichael, head of SNCC and Floyd McKissick, head of CORE, flaunted the new militancy of their organizations. Moderate leaders Roy Wilkins (NAACP) and Whitney Young (National Urban League) clashed with Carmichael and refused to endorse the march – though Young eventually did. On June 16th, Carmichael introduced the famous demand for, “black power”. There was no longer any illusion of a unified civil rights movement, and King realized that he – and nonviolence – needed a victory.

Soldier Field’s Rally

On July 10th, the Freedom Movement held a rally at Soldier’s Field, followed by a march to City Hall where King posted fourteen demands on the door in the manner of his namesake Martin Luther (see Chicago Tribune). The demands were a mix of long-range and immediate goals and included a $2 an hour city minimum wage, open employment, nondiscriminatory lending and, most prominently, open housing. The press made much of the divergent crowd estimates, 60,000 according to SCLC, 23,000 according to city spokesmen, and 30 to 35,000 according to members of the press (see Chicago Tribune. What was clear, however, was that the crowd at Soldier’s Field fell noticeably short of the SCLC’s prediction of 100,000. The Chicago Freedom Summer was off to a slow, though still respectable, start.

The Filing of Gautreaux

As King turned to public demonstrations to secure fair housing in Chicago, a group of CHA residents led by Dorothy Gautreaux and represented by Chicago attorney Alexander Polikoff (then at the Illinois ACLU) filed the nation’s first major public housing desegregation lawsuit, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority. Although Dorothy Gautreaux was herself an active member in CCCO, the Gautreaux litigation was planned independently of the Chicago Freedom Movement. The plaintiffs alleged that the CHA’s and Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) practice of concentrating public housing units in segregated neighborhoods and preventing blacks from moving into white developments violated both the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They could cite compelling evidence: of the 10,300 public housing units built by the CHA between 1954 and 1967, only 63 were built outside of segregated ghetto neighborhoods. The District Court’s decision would not come until three years later, well after the end of the Freedom Movement, but the results of the filing were to be hugely significant to public housing policy in Chicago and around the country (see Epilogue).

Daley and King’s First Meeting

The following day, Daley and King met to discuss the movement’s demands. The meeting was extremely unproductive, with Daley countering all demands by insisting that existing city programs, when expanded, would be adequate (see Chicago Tribune). Daley told reporters that the civil rights leaders had no constructive program: “We asked them, ‘What would you do that we haven’t done? They had no answers.” King too was frustrated, declaring after the meeting, “We had hoped the enormity of the problem, rather than the surface phases, would be met.” Daley, he lamented, did not understand “the depth and dimension of the problem.” Events just days later would make King’s closing statement at the meeting seem remarkably prescient: “We cannot wait. Young people are not going to wait.”

The Riots

On the evening of July 12th, well into a stifling Chicago heat wave, police attempted to shut down an open fire hydrant that west side youths were using to cool down. Opening hydrants and playing in spray was a time honored Chicago tradition, and ghetto-residents felt (probably correctly) that they alone were being held to the letter of the law. As police tried to turn off the water and residents continued to turn it back on a fight broke out, arrests were made, and the crowd that had gathered to watch the disturbance began throwing bricks and breaking store windows. Though King rushed to get those arrested released and tried to calm the crowd, he was unable to hold his audience. Rioting continued for the next three nights. The disturbances caused 2 million dollars of property damage in an already dilapidated area, left 2 people dead, and 400 in jail.

Mayor Daley called on Governor Otto Kerner (who would later be appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to head the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders) to mobilize the National Guard the morning of the 15th. He took the opportunity to denounce those he held responsible for the disturbances. Though Daley stated, “I think you cannot charge [the violence] directly to Martin Luther King,” he clearly implicated the SCLC, claiming that James Bevel, SCLC’s director of direct action, and his staff had “been talking for the last year of violence, and showing pictures and instructing people in how to conduct violence.” They were, according to the mayor, responsible in “great measure” for the outbreak of violence. This was a flat denial of Bevel’s and LaFayette’s, another of the Freedom Movement’s field leaders, longstanding commitment to nonviolence. Other members of the Daley camp went so far as to accuse King himself of inciting the riots. A stung King replied that, “The best remedy we have to offer from riots is to press our nonviolent program even more vigorously” (see Chicago Tribune).

An unscheduled meeting between Daley and civil rights activists on the afternoon of the 15th found the mayor in a somewhat more compromising mood; he vowed to send sprinklers and inflatable pools to the slums immediately.

That evening, though lacking sleep as a result of the previous nights’ disturbances, King and his SCLC aides called a meeting of all the city’s major gang leaders. They talked for hours, with King pushing the gangs to embrace nonviolence. Around 3:00 or 4:00 AM, after gradually converting the leaders a few at a time, the gangs pledged to eschew violence for the duration of the campaign. Gang members who participated in the open housing marches of the coming weeks behaved impeccably, even in the face of white violence.

Leaders of the Freedom Movement privately conceded that the riots were a major setback. In a meeting on July 16th, one member of the Freedom Movement warned that in the wake of the riots there was virtually, “no way to mobilize the masses without making statements which appear to the public as irresponsible.” Moderate whites, especially members of the Catholic clergy, had long been leaders in civil rights activism in Chicago; following the disturbances and ascendance of “black power,” Chicago activists debated the place of whites in the movement. A representative of the Catholic Interracial Council went so far as to suggest in the meeting on the 16th that whites retire from visible leadership positions and embrace a behind the scenes, organizational, role. However in the final analysis, key white members of the coalition – like the CIC and the AFSC – gave their full support to the Chicago Freedom Movement.

The Open Housing Marches

Despite the riots, a battle-plan for the movement’s direct action campaign gradually emerged in the days following the Soldier’s Field rally. Initially somewhat surprised to realize that the cost of housing in several all-white areas in Chicago was extremely low – within reach of many ghetto-dwellers – Freedom Movement organizers began sending black and white couples to seek service in real estate offices in Gage Park, a working-class and middle-class white neighborhood on the Southwest Side. The black testers quickly documented a strong pattern of racial discrimination, with many realtors refusing to serve them outright, and a concrete strategy for the movement’s direct action campaign materialized. First, tester visits to realtors in white communities, followed by protests and prayer vigils outside recalcitrant realtors offices and marches into the neighborhoods in question. Initially, these actions attracted little attention. Serious confrontations with neighborhood residents were, however, virtually inevitable. Because Freedom Movement organizers chose target neighborhoods largely on the basis of housing costs – below or equal to those in the ghetto – the communities facing marches were for the most part working class white neighborhoods that still valued their ethnic identity, and whose residents had put all of their savings into their homes and could not afford to move (it is important to note, however, that the organizers of the open housing campaign avoided communities that were directly on the edge of black communities, to avoid panic selling).

On July 31st, the anticipated drama materialized. After two days of increasingly tense marches in the Gage Park area, a group of over 500, the largest so far, set out from Marquette Park (see photos). Whites shouting “white power!” threw bricks and bottles at the marchers, striking civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and injuring more than fifty demonstrators. When marchers made for the cars they had left in the park under police supervision they found that two had been pushed into the lagoon, over ten had been set on fire, and many more had broken windows and slashed tires (see Chicago Tribune. King and other movement representatives immediately decried the failure of the Chicago police to protect the marchers. Moderates in Chicago and across the country were shocked by the virulent reaction of Southwest side residents. Finally, the open housing protests began to dominate the headlines (see Chicago Defender – an historically African-American paper). Read Bernie Kleina's account of the first Marquette Park march.

On August 5th, King set off at the helm of a second march through Marquette Park and into the Southwest Side. Minutes after the demonstration began, King fell to his knees, struck by a rock. Not badly injured, he continued to march, and for a while things seemed to have quieted. When the 500-plus marchers returned to Marquette Park, however, they found 4,000 angry whites waiting. Only exemplary police action kept the number of marchers injured down to 30. King declared after the march that he had “never seen as much hatred and hostility on the part of so many people.” Plans for marches through other hostile all-white areas were announced, including a possible demonstration in the town of Cicero, notorious for its violent resistance to integration.

The participation of two groups of volunteers in the open-housing marches is particularly noteworthy, that of religious figures and gang members. Participating clergy, often white, faced the greatest amount of abuse in white communities, whether rabbis, nuns, priests, or ministers. Many spiritual leaders had long been involved in civil rights advocacy in Chicago, and the appointment of Archbishop Cody, who had a strong record of civil rights support, to the city reflected the relative liberality of Chicago’s religious establishment. Many Southwest Side residents felt betrayed by their religious leaders, and they consequently drew the worst mob anger during the marches. One priest commented after the Gage Park march, “We learned that the sight of a Roman collar incited [the mob] to greater violence and nastier epithets.”

The exemplary conduct of the many gang members who participated in the marches was also a little noted triumph of the Chicago movement. From the start of the CCCO-SCLC collaboration, both organizations agreed that more community involvement was necessary – they could not simply work on behalf of “the ghetto” without the support of its residents. SCLC members led in the outreach program, attempting, in the face of widespread criticism, to recruit members of the city’s most notorious gangs to the nonviolent movement. These efforts prompted Mayor Daley to claim, incorrectly, in the aftermath of the riots that the SCLC had trained ghetto residents for violence. In the open housing marches, Gang members often had positions of great responsibility, directing groups of less hardened marches and shielding them from the worst crowd violence. Though certainly accustomed to responding to insults and physical provocation in kind, gang members, at least for the duration of each march, admirably upheld the movement’s nonviolent creed. King recalled, “I remember walking with the Blackstone Rangers [one of the Woodlawn areas most notorious gangs] while bottles were flying from the sidelines, and I saw their noses being broken and blood flowing from their wounds; and I saw them continue and not retaliate, not one of them, with violence.”

An embarrassed Daley wanted to stop the demonstrations as soon as possible. An August 4th announcement that the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) would begin posting guards in its notorious high rise public housing buildings, and make other changes desired by the King camp, reflected the mayor’s new conciliatory mood. In the face of the violent white response, the Chicago Freedom Movement seemed finally to become a promising force for change.

The Summit Conference

As the Freedom Movement gained momentum and pursued an increasingly ambitious schedule of demonstrations in hostile white neighborhoods over the next week, moderate white opinion turned drastically against the marches. Average Chicagoans feared the very real possibility of race war, and former supporters of the demonstrations began to call for a moratorium on the marches and meetings between the mayor, rights leaders, and real estate representatives. The SCLC leaders were no longer the only “outside agitators” in town, white supremacist fringe elements had come to take advantage of the anti-black sentiment. The leader of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, addressed a small but highly publicized rally in Marquette Park, and several prominent KKK members also descended on Chicago (see Chicago Tribune). Towards the end of August Daley would call a rare press conference to rail against “hate groups,” invading Chicago, and imply that civil rights leaders were among those spreading discord (see Chicago Tribune). Aided by many sincere civil rights supporters who feared further violence, the mayor skillfully spun the call for a suspension of the demonstrations as a plea for the preservation of law and order.

On August 12th the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race offered to sponsor a negotiating session the following week. Daley, the civil rights leaders, and the real estate board all agreed to participate. The meeting, dubbed the “Summit Conference,” took place on August 17th. Everyone at the negotiating table, except the Freedom Movement contingent, sought an immediate end to the marches. Daley came determined to hammer out an acceptable compromise. The president of the Chicago Mortgage Bankers Association pledged to end race discrimination in loans. The mayor and the head of the Chicago Housing Authority made vaguer, less reassuring promises in the areas of fair-housing ordinance enforcement and public housing construction in non-ghetto areas. Only the realtors had made no effort at compromise, and when they indicated they did not intend to, Daley, with the vocal support of the summit chairman Ben Heineman, recessed the meeting and ordered them to respond to the movement’s demands. By the end of the day the realtors had put together a vague statement that granted one small concession: they would “withdraw all opposition to the philosophy of open occupancy legislation at the state level – provided it is applicable to owners as well as buyers.” The realtors’ representative refused to clarify whether the Real Estate Board’s new “philosophical” position would translate directly into race-blind service in real estate offices. Still, the Daley camp and the conference chairman, touted the realtors’ statement as a major concession and called on the civil rights groups to end the marches (see Chicago Defender). When they responded angrily to the Freedom Movement’s refusal, King eloquently replied:

    “Now gentlemen, you know we don’t have much. We don’t have much money. We don’t really have much education, and we don’t have political power. We have only our bodies and you are asking us to give up the one thing we have when you say, “Don’t march.”

In lieu of an immediate agreement, a steering committee was appointed to work out the details of an agreement over the next nine days, and the Freedom Movement vowed to continue demonstrating in the meantime (see Chicago Tribune). By the end of the first session, the civil rights leaders recognized a major flaw in their negotiating strategy, one which ultimately guaranteed unsatisfactory results. Though the Freedom campaign had outlined a comprehensive set of demands for change at the start of the summer, the list of demands the civil rights activists had hurriedly prepared for the August 17 meeting was far too limited, lacking firm deadlines for goals such as neighborhood integration. Daley and the conference mediator were determined to hold the Freedom Movement to the overly vague requests it presented at the summit meeting.

The Compromise

Two days after the meeting, on August 19th, Mayor Daley surprised the civil rights leaders by securing an injunction severely limiting their ability to march – a move the activists considered a breach of good faith negotiations. King, in response to Daley’s action, pledged to adhere to the injunction, but responded with a plan to march through Cicero. He promised: “Not only are we going to walk in Cicero, we’re going to work in Cicero, and we’re going to live in Cicero” – Cicero, where four whites had recently beaten a black job seeker to death. The county Sheriff denounced the plan as suicidal, and Governor Kerner prepared to mobilize the National Guard. In the face of Daley’s action, doubts about the conference’s results among civil rights leaders increased.

The summit subcommittee continued to work on an agreement to present to the full summit conference, and as the promised march to Cicero approached the subcommittee’s work took on a note of urgency. On the 22nd, King led a tense march through the Southeast Side, and though rainy weather and a strong police presence prevented an outbreak of violence, few in Chicago felt the relative calm could last (see Chicago Tribune). The set date for the second summit conference was Friday, August 26, just two days before the scheduled Cicero demonstration, which would almost certainly lead to a violent white response worse than any the city had yet seen. The subcommittee finished just in time and all parties returned to the negotiating table. Observers waited nervously to see if the Cicero march would go on as planned (see Chicago Defender).

Questions about the time frame for implementation of the city’s and real estate board’s fair-housing promises, coupled with continued anger over the protest injunction, threatened to stall the summit proceedings. These tensions were ultimately smoothed over by promises of a civilian oversight body and a separate set of negotiations over the injunction. The civil rights leaders ratified the summit agreement, and King closed the session by stating, “I think now we can go on to make Chicago a beautiful city, a city of brotherhood.”

Though the remarks of both the city and the Freedom Movement organizers were positive, blacks and whites alike responded negatively to the compromise (see Letters to the Chicago Tribune). Many middle-class whites felt Daley had sold out to the civil rights leaders. White residents of the Northwest Side picketed City Hall with signs proclaiming: “Daley Sold Out Chicago,” “Daley Forgot His Taxpayers,” and “Summit Another Munich?” The general sentiment in the black community was that the movement had sold out to the white power structure. The Chicago Defender, in a feature entitled "Good Will (A Little) Found in White Area,” responded more circumspectly, focusing on both the potential for change and the huge hurdles that still remained. Though King concluded by warning that, “If these agreements aren’t carried out, Chicago hasn’t seen a demonstration,” this did little to reassure blacks in the absence of concrete deadlines for change. Some activists were so dismayed that they joined a march through Cicero in early September 1966 led by Robert Lucas of Chicago CORE.


In late March of 1967 King and Young declared a second round of demonstrations in Chicago that would make those “of last summer appear mild.” Despite initial optimism, the August 1966 summit agreement had been followed by virtually no action on the part of the city or the real estate board. King called it “a marvelous agreement on paper” that had netted few tangible gains for the black community. The plans King outlined for a second summer of protest in Chicago were ambitious, but they never got off the ground. Despite his strong statements, King and the SCLC recognized that the atmosphere in Chicago was not ripe for another campaign. The SCLC’s relationship with Chicago-based rights organizations had soured, and ghetto residents had little interest in another nonviolent campaign. At the end of May, the SCLC announced plans for a major rights drive in Cleveland over the summer, as well as efforts in Atlanta, Grenada, and Chicago. Clearly Chicago would not be the focus of all of the SCLC’s attention.

A sign of the agreement’s inefficacy was Daley’s rebounding popularity among middle class whites in Chicago. Directly after the signing of the summit agreement it appeared that the mayor had lost the support of the districts that were the focus of open-housing marches in the summer of 1966. Reassured by the city’s weak implementation, however, these areas overwhelmingly re-elected Daley in 1967.

Certainly the Chicago Freedom Movement did not succeed in its grandiose aim of “ending slums,” but the initiative was far from a complete failure. It succeeded in dramatizing the plight of black inner-city residents, and it proved that nonviolent direct action could be successfully adapted to the northern urban setting. Bernard Lafayette, one of the Freedom Movement’s Chicago-based leaders, summed up the unarguable accomplishments of the campaign in the winter of 1966: it proved that, “large numbers of people in a northern city can be mobilized for nonviolent direct action in the face of mass violence . . . [now no one can say] that a Negro can live where he wants to in the North . . . [or] that the opposition in the North is always too subtle to dramatize the issues.”

In 1969, the federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Gautreaux case, finding that the housing authority and federal government practice of concentrating public housing units in segregated neighborhoods and preventing blacks from moving into white developments violated both the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1969 decision demanded of CHA and HUD many of the changes sought three years earlier, at the time of the lawsuit’s filing, by the Freedom Movement. With considerable difficulty and despite continuing litigation, a small scattered site public housing program was begun and provided integrated housing opportunities to some plaintiff families.

Then in 1976 the Supreme Court ruled, in the landmark decision Hills v. Gautreaux (involving the scope of the remedy in the case), that HUD could be required to offer plaintiff families a form of metropolitan-wide relief using housing vouchers, and what became perhaps the most important part of the Gautreaux remedy followed. This was the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, which helped to place over 8,100 low income families from public housing into low poverty, predominantly white Chicago suburbs, beginning in 1976. The successes of the Gautreaux housing mobility program in promoting better educational, employment, and health outcomes for residents became the basis for housing mobility programs in many other cities, and led to the passage of the federal “Moving to Opportunity” demonstration in the 1990s (Public Housing Transformation: Gautreaux).

One of the most important outcomes of the Summit agreement was the creation of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities in 1966 – designated as the primary civilian oversight body in the agreement.. The Leadership Council (LCMOC) became the leading fair housing organization in Chicago and a national leader of the open housing movement. Early efforts by LCMOC focused on seeking landlords and real estate agents who would serve African Americans wishing to move to white areas. These were largely unsuccessful, and the emphasis shifted to legal action to enforce the new federal fair housing laws. In 1976, the Leadership Council was selected as the agency to implement the major part of the Gautreaux lawsuit’s housing remedy – the Gautreaux Assisted Housing mobility program.

In 1968, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson to pinpoint the cause of the ghetto riots prevalent in the second half of the 1960’s, vindicated King by concluding that: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The struggle for open housing begun by the Chicago Freedom Movement in 1966 is still very much in progress, in Chicago and across the country. If the aims of the Freedom Movement were overly ambitious, one can only fault its leaders – as one black reader did in a letter to the Chicago Tribune – for giving “too much credit to human nature.”

Prepared by Sara Asrat and Philip Tegeler for the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. We are grateful for the comments and suggestions made by Kale Williams, Alex Polikoff, and James Ralph.

We are also grateful to Bernie Kleina of the Hope Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, IL for sharing the photos he took at several rallies and marches in 1966. Photos © Bernard J. Kleina, 1966.

© PRRAC, December 2005

Works Cited

Anderson, Alan B. and Pickering, George W. Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1986).

Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. “Public Housing Transformation: Gautreaux.”

Carson, Clayborne. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr (New York : Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books, 1998).

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross (New York: Vintage Books, 1986).

Garrow, David. Chicago 1966: Open Housing Marches, Summit Negotiations, And Operation Breadbasket (Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing Inc, 1989).

Ralph, James. Northern protest : Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the civil rights movement (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1993).

The Chicago Defender

The Chicago Tribune Archives

The New York Times Archives

Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound, A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement (Plume, 1991).

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