Myths about the Chicago Freedom Movement

1. That Martin Luther King, Jr., marched in Cicero

Contrary to what is often reported, Martin Luther King did not lead a march in Cicero, Illinois, in the summer of 1966. Cicero had been the site of an intense race riot in 1951, and its residents were widely known to be hostile to blacks. It is true that King and Chicago Freedom Movement forces announced that they intended to march on Cicero, but the Summit Agreement in late August 1966 preempted those plans.

In protest to the Summit Agreement, Robert Lucas of Chicago CORE did lead over 250 marchers through Cicero on September 4, 1966.

2. That Martin Luther King, Jr., was hit by a rock in Gage Park

Martin Luther King, Jr., was indeed struck by a rock on an open-housing march on Chicago’s Southwest Side in the summer of 1966. But that event took place in Marquette Park and not Gage Park as is often reported. King was hit on August 5,1966, and later he said that he had “never seen as much hatred and hostility on the part of so many people.”

Gage Park was the target of open-housing marches, but the most hostile reactions to the non-violent demonstrators came in Marquette Park, which was to the west and south of Gage Park. On July 31, more than ten cars of demonstrators were set on fire at Marquette Park.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in fact, only marched twice during the open-housing campaign--once on August 5th, and again on August 21st on Chicago’s far Southeast Side.

3. That the Chicago Freedom Movement was essentially a contest between Mayor Richard Daley and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This perspective clearly capitalizes on the drama of pitting two of the most important Americans of their time against each other, but the story of the Chicago Freedom Movement was much more complex than this depiction suggests.

The Chicago Freedom Movement activists generally hoped to persuade or cajole Mayor Daley to take decisive action in support of racial justice. He was viewed as having the power to change the dynamics in Chicago. Moreover, the Chicago police, on the whole, protected marchers from angry whites, which bespoke of the different dynamics of the civil rights struggle in this northern city than in the South.

4. That Fair Housing was a poor choice for a focus in the summer of 1966

Open housing may not have been the number one concern of inner-city blacks in the summer of 1966, but it is clear that housing discrimination has been an important force in keeping African Americans and minorities from reaching the full promise of American life.

By centering direct action in the summer of 1966 on fair housing, Chicago Freedom Movement activists not only targeted a grave wrong in metropolitan Chicago (and across the country), but they also selected a northern target that could be readily confronted by nonviolent direct action. Other potential targets such as slum conditions or poor jobs were not as easily illuminated by nonviolent protests. Moreover, the open-housing marches of the summer of 1966 attracted national attention, and thus helped raise consciousness about the scourge of housing discrimination. In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed federal legislation to extend equal opportunity to all racial groups in the housing market.

5. That the Chicago Freedom Movement was a failure.

This is the conventional view of the Chicago Freedom Movement. There is no question that the Chicago campaign was not as successful as the Birmingham or Selma campaigns, but they both established high standards for measuring success.

The Chicago Freedom Movement, even if it did not end slums in the city of Chicago, did leave behind an important institutional legacy—Operation Breadbasket (later Rainbow/PUSH coalition) and the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. Furthermore, it showed that a violation in a northern setting—housing discrimination—could be effectively spotlighted by nonviolent direct action. And finally, it helped set in motion forces that would lead to the election of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983, the first black mayor in the city’s history.

--JRR