When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought his non-violent civil rights protest to Chicago to take on the city’s segregated housing practices, he was met with a rock thrown to his skull and a kind of demonstrators he had yet to meet in the South.
“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South but I can tell you that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – a march as hostile and of hatred” as the one in Chicago, the civil rights leader told reporters after leading a march through the Southwest Side of the city, an area Blacks were forbidden to enter.
The city’s separatist housing pre-dated King’s Jan. 15, 1929 birth, but by the time the Atlanta native was in his mid-30s he had made a decision to do something about it.
But it wasn’t just racist demonstrators who didn’t want the Nobel Peace Prize-winning King in the city. Some in Chicago’s Black community were opposed to his presence here, too.
The mere talk of the southern Baptist preacher coming to Chicago struck a negative chord with some Black leaders in the faith, political and social communities.
Revs. Jesse Jackson and Clay Evans were among the supporters of King and favored bringing him to Chicago. The two were part of a local ministers group that one particular day met at a church on the South Side to discuss inviting King to the city and allowing him to step into one of the minister’s pulpits.
The pushback was fierce, the two reverends told the Defender.
Jackson told how “the host minister went to his office and got his pistol” once preachers like Evans pressed the group to consider a vote allowing King to speak in Chicago with the group’s support.
“There was a strong undercurrent of ministers against (King) being here,” Jackson said.
The group was gathered at True Light Baptist Church, then-located at 43rd and State Streets, and the late Rev. Bill Paxton was the pastor, Evans explained.
Evans said the host pastor “didn’t want us to even discuss” King in his church.
“It was like any other situation, you had a divided group. Some wanted (to invite King) some did not,” Evans, now 85 years old, told the Defender.
Evans, founder and then-pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, had experienced racism in his native Brownsville, Tenn. and was fully supportive of King and his non-violent push for change. For him, backing King was personal.
“I had seen so much of it there and I just didn’t think it was fair,” Evans said of the inequities he witnessed in his home town. So he favored King because Evans “believed in what he did.”
Therefore, when the host pastor of the clergy meeting ran the ministers out, the group found a new home at Fellowship and the church became one of the first ones to allow King to speak from its pulpit.
But Evans said his open support for King delayed by seven years Evans’ plans to build a new church building.
The reverend explained that shortly after word spread that he was a King supporter and sought to bring the civil rights leader to Chicago, the broker who was helping Evans finance a new edifice announced that money was no longer available to Fellowship.
“It was said to me the powers that be, which meant the mayor and others, the banks would not let me have the money,” Evans said. “Because of the fact that I was supporting Dr. King.”
Jackson said King was keenly aware of the Chicago’s political climate and the stronghold the political machine had on some in the city, including Blacks.
Many Blacks rejected the idea of King being in Chicago because of their political ties to then-Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“Blacks in the North were reduced to being the liaison to the white power structure,” Jackson said. “Any action to upset their boss would upset them. … The political control mechanisms here were more oppressive than the South.”
There was also fallout in the business community.
Now 81 years old, Alvin Boutte Sr. was part of the small contingent of Black businessmen, along with the late Cirilo McSween and others, who gave King money and drew the ire of their respective communities.
Boutte said Black businesses not tied in with Daley supported King in Chicago, even if their neighbors didn’t.
“The whole Black business community in those days, we embraced what he was doing,” Boutte, co-founder and former Chairman and CEO of Independence Bank, told the Defender.
During King’s 1966 visit, Boutte lived in the Chatham community at 85th Street and Michigan Avenue. He recalled his neighbors’ reaction to King being at Boutte’s home.
“We invited King and his staff to come to our house and have lunch,” he said. “Some of our neighbors resented what we did. They didn’t like the idea that we’d invited him to our neighborhood. … I guess they thought he was a trouble maker.”
He said King was a man who wanted change, “but a lot of our people was afraid of change.”
Housing had been an issue in Chicago since the multitude of Blacks traveled north as part of the Great Migration. Racism and political oppression had kept some Blacks on the South Side confined to what was known as the Black Belt – today’s Bronzeville community. And as Jackson pointed out “Black people couldn’t move West of Halsted.”
On the West Side, slumlords rented to Blacks but failed to adequately maintain their property. But King came to town in 1966 and put segregated housing in the spotlight
and that summer, he took up residence in a West Side slum to further address the housing problem.
Some whites were angry, but so were some in the social movement called the Black Panthers.
Bobby Rush was part of that group before he became an alderman and, now, a U.S. Representative. He looks back on those days and attributes his rejection of King’s social movement to youthful misguidance.
“When Dr. King was here, I was in my adolescence. … We were young and we didn’t understand. We were young with energy and little wisdom,” Rush told the Defender.
Now he celebrates King.
“We’re at a point where we know and we can see the brilliance of Dr. King and the anointing of Dr. King,” said Rush, who is also a preacher now.
Jackson said King was aware of Blacks’ resistance to him being in Chicago, but King was not deterred.
“Dr. King was quite successful in Chicago,” Jackson said.
Boutte echoed that.
“It was a big visit for King and he got a lot done,” the now-retired Boutte said.
Even with the opposition he faced on many fronts in Chicago, many say his footprint in the city can be found in local housing ordinances established and the rise of “empowered” Blacks.
“He reshaped and redefined urban struggle and multicultural coalitions,” Jackson said of King.
Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender