Written on the City’s Face: Segregation in Chicago 50 years after MLK

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Chicago Freedom Movement, a civil rights movement dedicated to protesting the poverty, racism, and segregation that has been a poignant aspect of the United States’ history. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first marched in Chicago in August of 1966, he was met with opposition like he had never seen before, even after years of organizing in fiercely white supremacist regions of the Southern United States. “I have never seen… mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago,” he said, after supporters of segregation pelted protesters in Marquette Park with rocks and bottles. Dr. King himself was struck with a stone on that day; his injury and the injuries of his companions made starkly clear that racism was not just an issue for the South. Chicago presented a tremendous challenge to advocates of open housing and desegregation.

By the time Dr. King rallied the Chicago Freedom Movement, segregation and discrimination were long-standing conditions in Chicago’s housing. As Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes,

“Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago. Its mayors and aldermen razed neighborhoods and segregated public housing. Its businessmen lobbied for racial zoning. Its realtors block-busted whole neighborhoods, flipping them from black to white and then pocketing the profit. Its white citizens embraced racial covenants—in the ’50s, no city had more covenants in place than Chicago.”

At every level of Chicago’s society, from individuals who signed neighborhood agreements that willfully excluded people of color to official public housing policies that isolated people of color in slums, housing in Chicago had been consistently used as a tool to shape the city by racism. By choosing Chicago as the city to host his first attempts to bring his practice of non-violent civil disobedience to the North, Dr. King recognized Chicago as the perfect example of how racism can influence every aspect of a city’s life. The vicious reaction Dr. King encountered in Chicago unmasked the ugly face beneath the North’s image and rhetoric of liberalism and tolerance, making clear that oppression and racism can flourish even, perhaps even more, in places where people believe it isn’t happening.

Now, 50 years later, the legacies of racism are written on the city’s face; on a map of income distribution in Chicago (see below), the 15% of residents with very high income are clustered in the North, while the 65% with low or very low income are concentrated in the city’s broad sprawl. And, as a comparison between 1970 and 2010 shows, this disparity has only continued to grow. As anyone who rides the ‘L’ can see, the line between Chicago’s communities can be starkly black and white.

Despite the persistence of visible segregation in Chicago, the legacies of Dr. King’s Chicago Freedom Movement exist to this day. Bolstered by the movement’s campaign, Dorothy Gautreaux sued the Chicago Housing Authority for discrimination in public housing in 1966, a landmark case that led to reparations for thousands of victims of public housing discrimination in Chicago. The protests Dr. King led that summer directly influenced the Chicago Real Estate Board’s decision to enforce open housing regulations. These influential decisions and the protests in Chicago brought the question of housing discrimination onto a national stage, and laid the groundwork for what would become the Fair Housing Act in 1968. To this day, the Fair Housing Act and its amendments in 1988 are the most influential policies that secure the rights of renters and homebuyers against discrimination.

For many of Chicago’s low- to moderate-income renters, the issues Dr. King addressed in 1966 don’t feel like a thing of the past. Housing discrimination continues to influence the city’s communities, and to determine who has access to which resources. But just as the issues remain relevant, so does the spirit of community advocacy and support; community organizations across Chicago continue to advocate for the rights of tenants and homeowners, and to work towards a future in which everyone has heart, hope, and home. Click here to view a timeline of Spanish Coalition for Housing’s history alongside the national history of fair



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