The Chicago Freedom Movement

Martin Luther King with Andrew Young and Al Raby at press conference at Sahara Hotel Chicago, IL. King announces the Open City campaign to fight problems of the poor in the North. This is the SCLC’s first true Northern campaign. Jan. 7, 1966
Martin Luther King with Andrew Young and Al Raby at press conference at Sahara Hotel Chicago, IL. King announces the Open City campaign to fight problems of the poor in the North. This is the SCLC’s first true Northern campaign. Jan. 7, 1966

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As our nation commemorates his life and legacy, many will remember his march on Selma, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, and his organizing of the Montgomery bus boycotts. A lesser known part of his legacy is his advocacy for fair access to housing. He believed that housing was a key part of economic justice and civil rights. In one of his last campaigns before he died, Dr. King moved to Chicago in the summer of 1966 to join residents in their fight against unfair housing practices. This advocacy campaign, dubbed “Chicago Freedom Movement,” contributed to the passage of the Fair Housing Act two years later in 1968.

On January 26, 1966, Dr. King and his family settled into a run-down apartment on the west side of Chicago. King, who had recently celebrated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, turned his focus to the North for his next campaign. He hoped to tackle the less-visible but equally discriminatory housing and economic practices present there.

After World War II, the number of African Americans in Chicago greatly increased as many families moved to the city from the South during the Great Migration to flee racial violence and seek economic opportunity. This increase in the African American population led to segregated policies of redlining and restrictive covenants. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which was created to make homeownership accessible for all Americans, denied loan insurance to African Americans and even those who lived near them. This practice was called “redlining” because the FHA created maps that were marked with red ink in the areas where minorities lived to signify that the FHA believed that these neighborhoods were “undesirable” for investment. Restrictive covenants were laws that prevented African Americans from moving into white neighborhoods. These policies were a deliberate attempt by the government to segregate blacks and whites. Because of the policies, African Americans were forced into low-opportunity neighborhoods.

Not only were African Americans limited to living in certain neighborhoods, they also faced discrimination when they tried to buy homes. Most financial institutions would not lend to African American families. Many white realtors took advantage of this exclusion through “contract selling.” In contract sales, African Americans made monthly payments on their homes to the seller, with the promise of receiving the deeds to the homes once they were entirely paid off, usually decades later. These families had all of the responsibilities of a homeowner but none of the security—they did not build equity and they could be evicted for missing a single payment. Additionally, the realtors often sold these homes for prices that were double and triple their value. African American families were forced into these exploitative deals because they had no options to buy homes in the traditional market. It is estimated that 90% of African Americans in Chicago bought their homes through contract sales during the 1950s. This practice resulted in black families having thousands of dollars of debt and sent many spiraling into poverty. The Chicago Freedom Movement focused on homeownership and rental injustices facing black families. Dr. King and his staff visited tenants in apartments with atrocious conditions. Many of the apartments were rat-infested, without heat, dangerous, not regularly repaired by the landlords, and extremely overpriced. These unsafe and unaffordable housing conditions became the focus of tenant organizing over the course of 1966.

Tenants and residents who joined the Chicago Freedom Movement held mass meetings to discuss their grievances and strategize about how to bring attention to their issues. They held rent strikes, hosted workshops for youth on nonviolent activism, and boycotted banks and businesses that discriminated against African Americans.

On Sunday, July 10, 1966—“Freedom Sunday”—Dr. King stood before 30,000 Chicagoans at Soldier Field and spoke powerfully about the injustices in the housing industry. He declared, “I am still convinced that there is nothing more powerful to dramatize and expose a social evil than the tramp, tramp, tramp of marching feet.” Hundreds of residents then marched to City Hall to post a list of their demands.

Many white citizens in Chicago responded with violence. On Freedom Sunday an angry mob of whites attacked the marchers, setting their cars on fire and throwing rocks, glass, and racial slurs at the African Americans. The mayor of Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley, responded more positively. He agreed to meet with Dr. King and the tenants, and he negotiated an agreement for the city to commit to fair and open housing policies. Though some blacks argued that this agreement was weak and thus represented a defeat for their movement, Dr. King said it was “the first step in a thousand-mile journey.”

"We have made significant progress since the Chicago Freedom Movement and the passage of the Fair Housing Act, but we still have further to go."

The Chicago Freedom Movement was one of the major forces that led to the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act in 1968, though this was not the only impact of the campaign. There are many lessons housing advocates today can learn from the work of Dr. King and the Chicago residents:

  • Local policies matter, too. Even though the Chicago movement had a national impact, residents began by focusing on the policies that were impacting neighbors in their own community. National and state politics don’t always address the challenges faced by communities on an everyday basis.
  • Build a broad coalition: One of the lessons of Dr. King’s work in Chicago was that the fight for civil rights is more than black and white. The tenants in Chicago were mostly African American but they worked with a wide range of allies including those who were white, Hispanic, Jewish, and Polish. The fight for housing justice requires everyone to stand in solidarity.
  • Everyone has potential to lead: The Chicago campaign was primarily led by poor residents who also lived busy lives as factory workers, health aides, students, and parents. Dr. King and his staff worked to ensure that the main leaders of the movement were those who were directly impacted by the issues. As we continue our work, we must strive to empower community members to speak out for their communities.

We have made significant progress since the Chicago Freedom Movement and the passage of the Fair Housing Act, but we still have further to go. Today, many Americans continue to live in segregated housing and are stuck in neighborhoods without access to resources and opportunity. Others still face discrimination by landlords and banks.

Many of these challenges are not new, but we should find hope in knowing that we can draw wisdom from the Chicago Freedom Movement. As residents and advocates, we must continue along the path Dr. King pursued to ensure housing equality. In the words of civil rights activist Miss Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”