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This week in history: MLK Jr. takes on Chicago’s slums

In February 1966, Martin Luther King Jr., who was born this week on Jan. 15, came to the aid of five families living in a slum on the West Side without heat or light.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King visit tenants of a deteriorating apartment in Chicago
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King visit tenants of a deteriorating apartment building at 1321 South Homan Avenue, in Chicago on Feb. 23, 1966.
From the Sun-Times archives.

As published in sister publications the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t own the dilapidated building at 1321 S. Homan Ave. in Chicago where five families lived without light or heat. But in 1966, he made a bold, moral and not-quite-legal decision to improve their living conditions.

The civil rights leader, who was born this week on Jan. 15, 1929, moved to the city in 1966 to fight redlining tactics that kept Black Chicagoans in slums. His first major action in the city happened on Homan Avenue.

“The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will join the West Side Federation and residents of a building to take it over Wednesday and revamp it,” reporter Stephen A. Rothman wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times on Feb. 23, 1966, the day of the takeover.

Rev. Andrew Young, executive director of the conference, told Rothman that the five families living in the building contacted King two weeks ago and asked for help. They had been living without adequate heat and light.

“We have been trying to get something done for them for the last 10 days,” Young explained. “Now we are going over there to get rid of the filth and make it a place to live.”

Instead of paying rent to their landlord, John B. Bender, the residents would instead use the money to fund repairs, assuming a “trusteeship” over the building, as Rev. Owen McAteer of St. Agatha Church explained. An architect estimated the repair costs to the six-flat building to be $18,000, far more than the tenants could afford, but McAteer insisted “we are going to try to make it a place where people can live as decent human beings.”

So was this plan legal?

“We don’t know if it has been tested in court,” McAteer admitted. “We do not know if it is even legal, but we are hoping it works.”

The next day, King stood outside the Homan Avenue building and declared “that he and other slum fighters were ‘hereby assuming the trusteeship of this building,’” an unnamed Sun-Times reporter wrote on Feb. 24 in a recap of the takeover’s events. Asked whether the move was legal, King said, “We aren’t dealing with the legality of it, though it may be supra-legal (above the law). We are dealing with the morality of it.”

After the press conference, 15 people from the trusteeship agencies, including King and his wife, swept into the building armed with brooms and shovels to clear out the dirt and debris, the paper said. Rosie Townes, a 31-year-old resident, described terrible conditions in the building, including rodent infestations and falling plaster. She was the one who contacted McAteer, who then arranged for King to visit the building two weeks prior.

Since that visit, city services began flowing in, the paper reported. A city rodent-control team plugged up rat holes the day after King’s visit, and the week after, several inspectors stopped by to check on building code violations and garbage service. The city building commissioner also confirmed that the city had taken a legal interest in the property.

The Chicago Daily News took a different approach in its coverage of the takeover. Reporter Michael Lottman framed his Feb. 24 article as “the Nobel Prize winner against a sick old man.”

“It was nearly noon Thursday, but the victim of Rev. Martin Luther King’s first ‘rent-in’ was still asleep,” Lottman wrote. “J.B. Bender’s face, lined with age, was visible over a pile of blankets. The noise of his labored breathing filled his dingy, bare apartment at 3728 N. Kenmore.”

Bender suffered from emphysema, an unnamed friend told Lottman. This friend explained that a contractor had been contacted to “fix up” the building, but “although Bender spent a lot of money, the repairs weren’t made.” No clarification was made about what happened or where the money went.

The unnamed Sun-Times reporter did manage to talk to Bender, who said, “He (King) is doing the right thing. I don’t blame him a bit. And if you see him wish him luck and tell him I’m in favor of it.” It wasn’t clear, however, that the 81-year-old understood the nature of the trustee because he asked for “maybe a thousand dollars more than the mortgage.”

King pushed back against the notion that his fight targeted slum conditions, not any one particular landlord, the Sun-Times wrote. “Dr. King said ‘the lives and health’ of the building’s occupants, including 20 children, ‘are at stake.’”