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"Success and the Chicago Freedom Movement,"

by Mary Lou Finley May/June 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

Housing segregation still persists in Chicago, and by some measures poverty has even worsened in the 40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. moved into a slum apartment on Chicago’s West Side in January 1966 as a profound statement of support for the poor. Yet to conclude that the movement was, as one historian characterized it, “defeat in Chicago” is to miss much about the significance of this movement.

To see that significance, we need to trace the forces of change set in motion by the Chicago Freedom Movement and follow those energies forward through the years, even decades, to see what changes emerged over time. In this, its 40th anniversary year, we can begin to do just that.

The Chicago Freedom Movement was multi-faceted. However, it can largely be characterized as two interwoven movements: first, the concluding chapter of a decade-long nonviolent movement against racial segregation which began with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and concluded with the open housing marches opposing housing segregation in Chicago in the Summer of 1966; and secondly, the beginning stages of an anti-poverty/economic justice movement. We need to follow the threads of both of these efforts if we are to understand the outcomes of the Chicago movement.

Activist Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (MAP) model of social movements, developed to help organizers better understand their movements and strategize more effectively, can provide a useful framework in our efforts to assess the impact of the Chicago Freedom Movement.

The MAP model suggests that successful social movements pass through eight stages: (1) Normal Times; (2) Proving the Failure of Existing Institutions; (3) Ripening Conditions; (4) Movement Take-off; (5) Perception of Failure—a movement detour; (6) Building Majority Public Support; (7) Success; and (8) Continuing the Struggle. Moyer also suggests that when victories have been won on many issues within a larger movement, it is easier to win on the next issue within that frame, as both the public and powerholders have already made commitments to change and the movement’s message has begun to resonate widely. (For example, it was easier to win the integration of swimming pools and theaters in a town after the integration of restaurants had already been won.)

The Open Housing Campaign

Using the MAP lens, I would suggest that by the Spring of 1966, the open housing issue was ripe for movement take-off. Earlier successes in Southern desegregation campaigns had brought segregation into the public spotlight and convinced many—although far from everyone—that segregation was wrong. Significant groundwork had been done in fair housing organizing in Chicago during the previous decade, largely by the American Friends Service Committee. Chicago had passed a fair housing ordinance in 1963, but tests of real estate offices by black and white prospective buyers had proved the ordinance ineffective (propelling this movement through Stage 2, Proving the Failure of Existing Institutions). Nonviolent tactics for confronting the real estate industry, such as picketing real estate offices known to discriminate against black homebuyers or renters, had been developed and tried on a small scale.

The open housing marches served as the “trigger event” that sparked a Stage 4 take-off of the movement against housing segregation. The drama of the nonviolent marches themselves, the violent neighborhood response and the presence of Martin Luther King, Jr. prompted a city-wide crisis in Chicago and brought national and international attention. Housing segregation was placed in the national spotlight, and the clear violation of the rights of African Americans to equal treatment was made startlingly visible. A fair housing bill was introduced in Congress. The Summit Agreement reached by negotiations between the movement and Mayor Richard J. Daley ended the marches and committed Chicago institutions to make changes. However, it was viewed by many—both then and now—as weak.

If we view the open housing marches through the lens of the MAP model, we see that movement victories are seldom won at the end of Stage 4, Movement Take-off. Rather, they come later, as the forces set in motion by the movement engage a wide range of community members in the sometimes slow and deliberate work of propelling each movement issue forward to victory over time. Political scientist Sidney Tarrow, in his book Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, noted a similar pattern: “Cycles of contention are a season for sowing, but the reaping is often done in periods of demobilization that follow, by latecomers to the cause, by elites and authorities.” While Tarrow seemed to view this process as rather mysterious, the MAP model provides clues as to how this next chapter of a movement’s life unfolds.

In Stage 6, Building Majority Public Support, movement work shifts from protest to quieter, protracted struggle, utilizing educational efforts to deepen and broaden public support, and, as public support grows, to work through legislative, legal and community channels to institutionalize change, propelling the movement, issue by issue, to Stage 7, Success. Protests may also occur, but they tend to be smaller and localized, either directed at specific local targets or prompted by “re-trigger events” which again pull movement issues into the public spotlight. (Cindy Sheehan’s decision to camp out in Crawford, Texas outside President Bush’s home in August 2005 was such an event in the movement against the Iraq war. Multitudinous vigils supporting her sprung up across the U.S. in less than a week.)

How did this Stage 6 work, Building Majority Public Support, unfold, then, in the months and years following the Summer 1966 open housing marches? This story is yet to be fully told, but I can at least cite a few examples, many of which address the original 1966 demands posted by Martin Luther King, Jr. on the door of Chicago’s City Hall.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968, with provisions for fair housing, was passed by Congress in April 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. It was further strengthened in 1988. The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, established by the 1966 Summit Agreement, for 40 years continued to support thousands of African Americans moving into predominantly white neighborhoods in the city and its suburbs. [See "Farewell to the Leadership Council"]The noisy, virulent and sometimes violent opposition to these move-ins which had been a characteristic of race relations in Chicago since the early 20th century were, by the mid-1990s, virtually ended. An anti-redlining movement against discrimination in mortgage-lending, which spread across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was rooted in Chicago and led by Chicagoans such as Gail Cincotta, Director of National Peoples Action. The Community Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in 1977 guaranteed equality in bank-lending and required bank investment in communities with bank branches. The Gautreaux case against the Chicago Housing Authority, led by Alex Polikoff and described in his compelling new book, Waiting for Gautreaux, won a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that required CHA to house African Americans in predominantly white neighborhoods. This case was intertwined with the Chicago Freedom Movement’s work in significant ways: Dorothy Gautreaux was active in the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, and others in the American Civil Liberties Union— which engaged Polikoff in this project—were quietly supporting the Chicago Freedom Movement. The Contract Buyers League, which emerged from organizing out of Presentation Catholic Church on the West Side in the late 1960s fought for the rights of homeowners who had been unable to get conventional bank mortgages.

Moyer’s MAP model suggests that “reformers” who carry movement issues on to victory through legislative and legal channels and patient community work in the later stages of a movement, as described above, are often different individuals or groups from the “rebels” who organized the initial protests and brought the issue to public attention. Activists involved in these different roles may even be unaware of each other’s contributions to the overall movement effort. Yet, Moyer contends, all are critical for a movement’s ultimate success, and all of this work needs to be seen as a part of the larger movement whole.

The “End the Slums” and Economic Justice Campaigns

The “End the Slums” campaign had a dual focus: organizing tenants around improved housing conditions; and secondly, a more general anti-poverty effort to bring to public consciousness the indignities of poverty, the systemic, institutionalized nature of poverty, and the immorality of a society which allows poverty to persist in the midst of wealth. Operation Breadbasket, led by Rev. Jesse Jackson and a group of black ministers, conducted a focused economic justice campaign aimed at more jobs and economic empowerment for African Americans.

Both the tenants’ rights movement and the general anti-poverty movement were in their very early stages in 1965-67. It was a time for experimenting with ways of framing issues and developing organizing strategies, but the MAP model suggests that we would not expect massive mobilizations during these early stages.

Jesse Gray’s organizing of tenant councils and rent strikes in New York City was known to Freedom Movement organizers and served as an inspiration. Martin Luther King’s decision to move into a slum apartment himself brought widespread public attention to poor housing conditions in the black community. Bernard Lafayette’s work on a lead poisoning campaign with neighborhood youth highlighted the very real health dangers of slum housing while teaching youth strategies for bringing change in their community. Southern Christian Leadership Conference Project Director Rev. James Bevel proposed the development of tenant unions, in which tenants would seek collective bargaining agreements with landlords; this formed the basis of the tenant organizing work.

Tenant union organizing efforts brought an important victory a few days after the rally at Soldier’s Field kicking off the summer campaign. On July 13, 1966, East Garfield Park slumlords John Condor and Louis Costallis agreed to sign a collective bargaining agreement with their tenants allowing rent withholding if buildings were in dangerous states of disrepair. The importance of this work was swallowed up at the time in preparations for the open housing marches, and its innovative potential seems to have been overlooked by many movement observers. Yet it is the type of victory the MAP model would lead us to anticipate when a movement is in its early stages; it is small and local and, at the same time, a creative new approach, full of potential.

Tenant organizing continued in Chicago, but it was not until the 1980s that the tenants’ rights movement reached take-off. In the mid-1980s, the 40-group Coalition for Tenants Rights formed and in 1986 won a Chicago city ordinance offering new tenant protections, including a “repair and deduct” provision which, according to Gregory Squires and his colleagues (see the accompanying Resources Box, p. 15), “allows tenants to make repairs that are necessary for health or safety reasons and deduct the cost from the rent,” paralleling the Freedom Movement’s original tenant-landlord collective bargaining agreement. Meanwhile, the National Low Income Housing Coalition was formed in 1974, “dedicated to ending America’s affordable housing crisis,” and tenant organizations emerged in other cities to protect tenants’ rights.

Operation Breadbasket won its first victory in April 1966, gaining commitments for jobs for African Americans in companies through its strategy of selective buying campaigns, taking on one dairy, soft drink company, grocery chain at a time. This approach to improving job opportunities—which itself paralleled earlier “don’t shop where you can’t work” campaigns in Chicago dating back to the 1930s— provided early practical and conceptual support for affirmative action, with its goals and timetables for hiring minorities, ordered by the Supreme Court in 1971.

Breadbasket also expanded rapidly in its first year to include broader economic empowerment goals, winning campaigns for increased deposits in black-owned banks, marketing assistance for black businessmen and other efforts to strengthen the black community’s economic base. Rev. Jesse Jackson and others have continued this highly successful work for the last 40 years, continuing to organize in support of new economic opportunities for African Americans and for African-American-owned businesses. This organization became independent of SCLC in 1971 and now operates as Rainbow/PUSH.

As Paul Street’s new report for the Chicago Urban League (see Box, p. 15) documents, there has been a very substantial expansion of the black middle class, upper middle class and upper class since the 1970s. For example, he notes: “Between 1970 and 2000 the number of African American Chicagoans receiving an income …of $75,000 and above [according to]..the 2000 census increased by 13%,” while “the comparable increase for all Chicagoans was only 1%.” The efforts of Breadbasket/PUSH, combined with nationally-mandated anti-discrimination and affirmative action programs in colleges and universities as well as workplaces, have no doubt contributed significantly to this expansion of the African-American middle and upper classes. These are important victories.

Anti-Poverty Efforts

The same cannot be said, however, of anti-poverty efforts. The Chicago Freedom Movement developed an analysis of the slum as an exploited community, a community from which resources were drained, a victim of an “internal colonialism”; the Union to End Slums was an effort to organize around this analysis. Yet it did not go far. Specific anti-poverty provisions were included in the Summer 1966 demands, such as a call for an increase in the minimum wage and improvements in the administration of the welfare system, as well as institution of fair employment practices. The movement did not—at this point—succeed in developing viable strategies and tactics for tackling the issue of poverty. However, Martin Luther King’s speeches framing poverty as an issue of economic justice are an important legacy of that time.

After Chicago, anti-poverty movements were increasingly Dr. King’s focus, and, when he was assassinated in April of 1968, he was deeply engaged in two such campaigns: the Poor Peoples Campaign, a multiracial nonviolent action campaign to bring poor people from across the country to the seat of power in the nation’s capital to demand that poverty be abolished; and the Memphis garbage workers’ strike. Both of these campaigns represented strategic innovations that provided more powerful vehicles for raising the issue of poverty in the public arena. Yet this work was cut short by Dr. King’s tragic assassination.

Former SCLC staffers Dorothy Wright Tillman—now alderman for a Chicago South Side ward—and Rev. Al Sampson, pastor of a South Side church, have continued to address the needs of the poor in Chicago over the intervening decades. When Rev. Jesse. Jackson ran for President in 1984 and 1988, he brought the issues of economic justice and poverty to national political debates.

While the other issues raised by the Chicago movement are by no means completely resolved, I would suggest that the battle against poverty is the great unfinished work of that time.

Yet this cannot be seen just as a movement failure. Anti-poverty movements in Chicago and other Northern cities continued to build in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 a great backlash took hold. Reagan cut social spending, refused to raise the minimum wage, reduced taxes for the rich and, with his attack on mythical “welfare queens,” began a decades-long ideological battle to label the poor as “unworthy,” and undercut the framing of poverty as an issue of justice. The deindustrialization begun in the 1970s and the continued outsourcing of well-paying jobs have also made the escape from poverty ever more difficult.

Only in the last decade have we begun to see the serious revival of an economic justice movement. Living-wage ordinances have been adopted by over 100 cities and counties, and there have been successful state-level initiatives to raise the minimum wage, most recently in Florida and Nevada. Labor efforts to organize the unorganized, particularly in the service industry, are revitalizing the labor movement and bringing hope to workers. Hurricane Katrina brought persistent poverty back into the public spotlight and broke through the Reaganesque caricatures of the poor, reviving widespread empathy for mothers with hungry children and others who are suffering.

Perhaps the anti-poverty/economic justice movement will, finally, take off and we will begin to work together as a nation to address this painful legacy of untended public business.

In conclusion, I would suggest that the Chicago Freedom Movement did its work, the work that could be done, at that moment in history. It brought the housing segregation movement to take-off and succeeded in framing anti-poverty efforts as a matter of economic justice. Its tenant union organizing helped the nascent tenant movement to grow. The economic empowerment work begun by Operation Breadbasket has borne fruit for the last 40 years. All of these undertakings were furthered, often by others, in the decades that followed, and, over the years, there were many successes. Yet there is still much to be done.

As we commemorate the Chicago Freedom Movement’s 40th anniversary this year, a call will be issued inviting everyone to join in the unfinished work.

Mary Lou Finley was on the SCLC staff in Chicago in 1965-66, where she served as secretary for Project Director Rev. James Bevel. She is a member of the faculty at Antioch University Seattle and a co-author of Doing Democracy: the MAP Model for Organizing Social Movement, with primary author Bill Moyer (now deceased), who was a collaborator in the initial thinking on these issues.

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