Don Rose: How the Chicago Freedom Movement marches began

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Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, with Al Raby, left, and Rev. Andrew Young, right, announcing the launch of the Chicago Freedom Movement, “the first significant Northern freedom movement ever attempted by major civil rights forces.” | File photo

The summer of 1966, when the Chicago Freedom Movement kicked into high gear, will long be remembered as the time of civil rights marches into hostile white neighborhoods — but those marches were never on the movement’s initial agenda.

One phase of the CFM housing agenda was aimed at achieving open occupancy (as it was called then) by showing up the nature of housing discrimination by the real estate industry and the toothlessness of Chicago’s open-housing ordinance.

The agenda began by testing real estate agencies to determine racial steering. We carefully selected white communities at least one mile from racial boundary streets (such as Ashland Avenue on the South Side) and at a median economic level the typical black family could afford. A white couple would go to a real estate office to see what apartments might be available in the neighborhood, followed by a black couple and then by another white couple. As expected, the white couple would be shown places only in a white section, the black pair would only be shown something in the black sector—and told nothing else was available. Then, the second white would be again shown something only in a white section.

A report of this would be made to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, which had the responsibility for sanctioning the real estate broker. If nothing happened following the report, a vigil was to be called outside the offending real estate office.

One of the agencies reported and not sanctioned was F.H. Halvorsen Real Estate, serving the targeted Gage Park neighborhood. A vigil was called on July 28.

About 100 black and white demonstrators stood outside the agency doors holding placards and singing freedom songs. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and James Bevel were in charge because Dr. King was out of the city and CFM co-chair Al Raby was occupied elsewhere.

As the day wore on, whites began gathering near the vigil, heckling and jeering. The white crowd grew larger and increasingly vociferous.

It was evident that violence would grow as night came on. No one wanted to disperse near the angry white crowd. The police offered an alternative: They would truck the demonstrators away in police wagons. Bevel and Jackson agreed, and the world was treated to the sight of peaceful civil rights demonstrators filing into the wagons like common criminals. The white crowd jeered louder and screamed obscenities.

We were deposited at the Southside Freedom Center in Englewood. In the back room, a group of the leadership clustered in grief and embarrassment. Raby returned, furious. He said we should have demanded police protection for a march back to the center.

I, among others, said that because of the humiliating retreat, the only way to retrieve our dignity and affirm our right to demonstrate peacefully was to plan a march back to the Halvorsen office from the Freedom Center. Dr. King agreed, and the action was set for two days later, July 30.

That march met with local white opposition, and another march was scheduled for Sunday, July 31. That march, led by Raby, planned to go west on 79th Street, through Marquette Park, then north to the office. But it was met by jeering, rock-and-bottle-throwing white crowds lining 79th Street, then massive violence when the march got to the park.

Cars were burned and run into the pond in the park. The police not only failed to protect but also seemed to encourage the white youths to carry on with the violence.

We were stymied at the park. Groups of us sat down and sang. The whites just ahead of screamed epithets and sang their own racist song parodies. One of them was, to the tune of an Oscar Meyer jingle, “I wish I was an Alabama trooper…then I could kill a n—er fearlessly.”

With many people hurt by flying missiles, their cars burned and other damage inflicted because the police failed to protect us, we headed back to the Freedom Center. Angry whites lined the south side of 79th as we filed on the north side — then, almost magically, things were peaceful as we crossed Ashland.

It would be almost another week before we made the march all the way through Marquette Park to the Halvorsen office — this time protected by Chicago police, who were given orders to do so after the earlier debacle. But they could not fully protect Dr. King, who had returned to Chicago to lead this particular, successful march. That was the day he was stunned and briefly felled by a flying brick in the middle of Marquette Park.

That was also the beginning of a series of marches that summer into a host of hostile of white communities that met our economic and geographic criteria. Our agenda had changed.

Don Rose was press secretary for the Chicago Freedom Movement. Reprinted from “Fulfilling the Dream, Chicago Freedom Movement,” October 2005.


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