Starting in 2002, I circulated an email within my law firm to mark Martin Luther King Day. Each year through 2008, I looked back at Dr. King's life 40 years before, from 1962 until his assassination in 1968. Here is my email from 2006.
Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Day. While we are open for business, it is appropriate to mark the occasion by remembering Dr. King's life. It perhaps is particularly important for us to do so this year, because 2006 marks the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's civil rights campaign in Chicago. For those of you who are so inclined, I offer some thoughts for your consideration.
Forty years ago, on January 16, 1966, Dr. King had just turned 37 years ago. He was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta. He gave his first sermon in his father's church at age 18, was ordained as a Baptist minister and earned his B.A from Morehouse at age 19, married Coretta Scott at age 24, and became pastor of the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery at age 25. By 1966, he already had led the Montgomery bus boycott that Rosa Parks had sparked, had formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and been elected its president, had written his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," had given his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, had led the march from Selma to Montgomery, and had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He also had been repeatedly arrested, beaten, spat upon, and tear gassed, and had had his home bombed twice with his family inside.
In 1966, Dr. King brought his civil rights campaign to Chicago. In his own words, "[i]t is in Chicago that the grapes of wrath are stored." On January 26, 1966, Dr. King, his wife Coretta and their four children moved into a $90-a-month, four-room apartment on the third floor of 1550 South Hamlin Avenue. The apartment was chosen as a "typical West Side ghetto apartment" to attract attention to the living conditions of the poor. When the landlord discovered that the civil rights leader intended to move in, he had the apartment repainted, against Dr. King's wishes.
On July 10, 1966, Dr. King addressed a crowd of more than 50,000 at Soldier Field as part of a campaign to end discrimination in housing, jobs, and schools in Chicago. Afterwards, he led 38,000 followers on a march from Soldier Field to City Hall where he posted on a door to City Hall the Chicago Freedom Movement's demands for open housing and jobs in traditionally all-white industries.
Throughout the summer of 1966, Dr. King led marches into traditionally all-white neighborhoods demanding open housing. Leading an integrated march into Marquette Park, Dr. King was hit by a rock thrown by an angry mob. "I have never in my life seen such hate," said Dr. King, "not in Mississippi or Alabama." As he noted, "I have to do this -- to expose myself -- to bring this hate into the open."
Dr. King's Chicago campaign did not immediately lead to national legislation, as his earlier work had led to the Civil Rights Act. It did, however, lead to a summit meeting among Dr. King, Mayor Daley and leaders of the city and the Chicago Freedom Movement. At the end of one tense meeting, Dr. King told Mayor Daley:
Let me say that if you are tired of demonstrations, I am tired of demonstrating. I am tired of the threat of death. I want to live. I don't want to be a martyr. And there are moments when I doubt if I am going to make it through. I am tired of getting hit, tired of being beaten, tired of going to jail. But the important thing is not how tired I am; the important thing is to get rid of the conditions that lead us to march.
Now, gentlemen, you know we don't have much. We don't have much money. We don't really have much education, and we don't have political power. We have only our bodies and you are asking us to give up the one thing that we have when you say, "Don't march."
Mayor Daley obtained a court injunction against continued marches in Chicago. While Dr. King denounced the injunction, rather than violate it, he led marches in suburban Chicago Heights, Evergreen Park, and South Deering. The Chicago Tribune reported that King's nonviolent campaign had instead brought violence to the city, and called it a plot to "sabotage" Chicago.
Ultimately, on August 26, 1966, Dr. King and Mayor Daley announced that they had reached an agreement: the marches would stop, while city leaders promised to promote fair housing. Dr. King called the agreement "the first step in a 1,000-mile journey [to make open housing a reality], but an important step." Black militants, who had booed Dr. King off the stage at an earlier rally, denounced the settlement. The Daley administration did not fulfill its promises.
Nonetheless, Dr. King's campaign in Chicago nationalized the civil rights movement. It also focused attention not only on voting rights, but rights to housing, job, and schools free from discrimination.