King’s time in Chicago echoes today
The city is still deeply divided with no clear way forward. The only clue of what lies ahead comes from what has already occurred. A crucial view that would be blurred by those hot to whitewash the story in school books, the better to lead this country into deeper ruin.
Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Chicago, briefly. At 1550 S. Hamlin Avenue. He moved in Jan. 26, 1966, with his four children and wife Coretta, who found the stench of urine in their new apartment “overpowering.”
But King felt he had to come to Lawndale to spread his message of non-violent resistance to America’s entrenched racism.
“There are more Negroes in Chicago than in the whole state of Mississippi,” King said.
On Martin Luther King Day 2022, it is doubly important to reflect on the history of race in this country, because that history is imperiled in a way both real and chilling to any truly patriotic American.
The Republican Party is at war with the past, part of its general campaign against any reality that reflects the party as it truly is: a totalitarian cult that has turned its back on democracy and freedom. That feels obligated to smudge any shiny surface: science is wrong, the press is fake.
The GOP premise is that any true telling of America’s racial past is some kind of plot to make their children feel bad, perhaps by cluing them in to what haters their parents really are. Talk about snowflakes ...
They don’t realize that any true telling of history is a challenge to anyone’s inflated sense of self worth. For instance, before we take too much pride in Martin Luther King, Chicago resident, we should understand how hard a challenge the city posed for King. The city’s Black population was far less promising material than King was used to molding.
“The Negroes of Chicago have a greater sense of powerlessness than I ever saw,” said Hosea WIlliams, King’s chief lieutenant. “They don’t participate in the government process because they are beaten down, psychologically. We are used to working with people who want to be free.”
King was struck by the self-destructive anti-Semitism of Blacks in Chicago, a city, King wrote, where he first was booed by a Black audience. Not because they were beaten down, historians tell us, but bought off.
“Much of the opposition came not because Chicago blacks were powerless, but because they had more power than blacks in the rural south,” Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor write in “American Pharaoh,” their biography of Richard J. Daley, “who needed black votes in a way that southern politicians did not, handed out elected offices, patronage jobs, and money in the black community.”
Are you feeling bad yet? Would you insist that a teacher teaching this be fired?
Last week, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin banned “critical race theory” — the ooo-scary code that stands in for history of racism the way that “illegal immigrants” stands in for “brown immigrants” — in his first executive order, as if it were the state’s most pressing problem. Across the South, governors are unleashing mobs of white parents to tear apart school curricula.
It is a time-worn tactic.
Daley didn’t need to use his cops to attack King. His supporters did that for him, unbidden. That August, King arrived at a open housing march in Marquette Park to find protesters screaming “white power!” and “Up with the KKK!” and “Go home, you apes!” They waved Confederate flags.
“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I had never seen, even in Mississippi, mobs as hostile and hate-filled as in Chicago,” said King, who was hit in the head by a rock.
Daley thwarted King by gilded manipulation, a tactic that would bloom and flourish. Daley presented himself as the enemy of slums and tied King up in endless meetings and round-the-clock negotiations drawing up empty resolutions.
“While we were under no illusions about Chicago, in all frankness we found the job greater than even we imagined,” King later wrote, hoping he had set “the basis for changes.”
Had he? When you read King’s writings about Chicago, much hasn’t changed. King was shocked at how Black youngsters could be killed here, “yet there was no citywide expression of horror.”
The city is still deeply divided with no clear way forward. The only clue of what lies ahead comes from what has already occurred. A crucial view that would be blurred by those hot to whitewash the truth in school books, the better to lead this country into deeper ruin. We can’t let that happen.