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"Forty Years of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago,"

by Dick Simpson May/June 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

Forty years ago, the civil rights marches burst upon the scene in Chicago. Within a year, there was a summit agreement of sorts between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mayor Richard J. Daley. Many at the time saw the agreement as a sham and simply a way for Dr. King to leave town and take the movement other places where there would be more success. Others note today that the gap between poor Blacks and rich Whites in the Chicago Metropolitan region is greater than in Dr. King’s time. Yet, to claim that nothing was gained then or now is to miss significant changes that have occurred.

For most of the 1960s, African Americans were represented in the City Council of Chicago by the “Silent Six” Black aldermen. In this period, African Americans were best represented by a White alderman, 5th Ward Alderman Leon Despres, who was described by novelist Ronald Fair as the “only ‘Negro’ in city government” and by David Llorens in the Negro Digest in 1966 as the “lone ‘Negro’ spokesman in Chicago’s City Council.”

In 1967, demographer Pierre de Vise wrote The Widening Color Gap, in which he contrasted the 10 richest White areas of the metropolitan region and the 10 poorest Black communities. Unfortunately, the “color gap” between rich Whites and poor Blacks continued to grow even after the Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty were implemented by the national government. William Julius Wilson, when studying some of the same Black ghettoes, declared that the ghettoes grew only worse and were the breeding ground of a “permanent underclass.”

Sixty years ago, the law in the South and the practice in the North was segregation. In Chicago, progress has been slow but steady. It may not seem like much to have gone from a segregation index of 94% to 86% (the percent of people who would have to move to have each community have the same racial profile as the metropolitan region as a whole). But despite itself, Chicago is moving toward more integration and shared power and wealth between the races.

Since the 1960s, there have been advances in racial justice and power- sharing. The Chicago City Council has replaced the “Silent Six” Black aldermen with 20 African-American aldermen who are prepared, at least on clear racial issues, to vote the views and needs of their constituents. Unfortunately, they are also part of a White, Black, and Latino rubber stamp City Council which goes along with Mayor Richard M. Daley far too often. They don’t have Dr. King’s courage or vision (with a few notable exceptions). Even so, they are a manifestation of Black power in practice—as are the Black state legislators, judges and Congressmen Chicago voters regularly elect. In social science language, Blacks have been incorporated into the ruling elite governing the city.

The high water mark of Black power, of course, was Harold Washington’s mayoralty from 1983-1987. He began programs of affirmative action in city jobs and contracts which have brought thousands of government jobs and millions of dollars in city contracts to the Black community. He not only empowered Blacks, but also Latinos, Asians, women, gays and progressive Whites. As his supporters like to say, with justification, he raised the floor of city government. Since his death, the programs of affirmative action in jobs and contracts, minorities in key cabinet positions and city leadership roles have continued. But this was a plateau from which Blacks have not advanced further, even as other minorities have made significant gains in the Richard M. Daley era.

Mayor Richard M. Daley’s cabinet contains seven African Americans (17%), 24 Whites (59%), 7 Hispanics (17%) and 3 Asians (7%). So Whites continue to vastly outnumber everyone else, but Blacks and Latinos are represented in the highest positions.

More telling are city jobs and contracts. During Mayor Richard M. Daley’s reign, despite having roughly 36% of the population and 40% City Council membership, and providing an increasing level of electoral support for the mayor, African Americans have averaged only 12% of the city contracts throughout his term, and in the last year, dropped to an all-time low since 1987 of 9%. While Blacks have increased their vote for Daley from 10% in 1989 to 57% in 2003, Black jobs have dropped slightly, from 33.25% to 32%.

So in city jobs and contracts Blacks have stood still, while by contrast Latinos have made substantial gains. Although with 28% of Chicago’ population, Latinos are underrepresented in the Chicago City Council with eight Latino aldermen (16%), they have made remarkable gains in jobs and contracts. Under Mayor Washington, they received for the first time 4% of city contracts and 5% of city jobs by 1987. They have increased under Mayor Richard M. Daley to 14% of contracts and 11% of jobs. Partially, this is a reward for the more than 80% of their votes which they give Mayor Daley every election. A White/Latino coalition now governs the city, although Latinos are distinctly the junior partners in the arrangement.

To make any final assessment of the impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, it is critical to realize that it has gone beyond the bounds of the African-American community. Women, Latinos, gays and Asians have all benefitted from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and all the years since. Immigrants are the newest members of the movement. As civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote in his Sun-Times op-ed column on May 2, 2006, the day after 700,000 immigrants and their supporters marched to demand their rights in Chicago, “immigrants and their human rights supporters took to the streets, reigniting this era’s civil rights struggle. . . . As I see it, their rally cry— ‘Si se puede’—is Spanish for ‘We shall overcome’.” Civil rights is now the rallying cry not just of Blacks, but of all groups that are oppressed and mistreated in our society.

Have we made it to the promised land since the marches began in Chicago 40 years ago? No, we haven’t. There have been many setbacks and many failings. With a conservative President and Congress, progress is slower than many of us would like.

But there are still clear signs of progress. Overt discrimination is against the law, and Blacks, like other minorities, have been incorporated into the mainstream of corporate Chicago and political Chicago. To make further progress requires rebuilding a rainbow coalition of Blacks, Whites, Latinos and Asians; of women and men; of straights and gays; and of new immigrants and American-born. The strongest force for change is in fact new movements, rightful successors of the decades-old civil rights marches—the Anti-Iraq War Movement, the Women Rights, the Gay Rights and the brand-new Immigrant Rights Movement. Only together can we make further progress towards social justice.

Dick Simpson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a former Chicago Alderman (1971-79) and participated in the Civil Rights Movement demonstrations in Texas during the early 1960s. His best known books on Chicago are Winning Elections and Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps: The Political History of the Chicago City Council from 1863 to the Present.

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