MLK’s Legacy in North Lawndale, Chicago

Fifty-six years ago, on January 26, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family moved to 1550 N. Hamlin Avenue in the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago. Dr. King’s mission was to protest slum conditions, overpricing of rent, and discriminatory housing practices. The King family moved on the third floor, where tenants in the three-story building were living without water, electricity, and heat. King’s rent was $97.00 per month for a four-room apartment, whereas whites would pay $78.00 per month for a new large spacious five-room apartment. Dr. King’s presence in the community raised public awareness of the black community’s issues in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

With the success of the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. King focused his next campaign in the North to tackle rental injustices and improve living conditions for black families in Chicago with a non-violent approach. “If we can break the system in Chicago, it can be broken any place in the country,” said King.

MLK Lawndale Chicago DefenderAlbert Raby, civil rights activist and co-chair of The Chicago Freedom Movement and leader of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, asked Dr. King to lead the campaign against discriminatory real estate practices. The Chicago Freedom Movement held meetings where tenants discussed issues such as rodents, overpricing of rent, and maintenance neglect by the landlords. The movement also boycotted businesses that did not patronize African Americans, held rent strikes and workshops on non-violent resistance. Dr. King and his advisors visited tenants in their apartments to view the unsafe and inhumane conditions. “We are tired of living in rat-infested slums,” he said. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children,” says Dr. King.

On July 10, 1966, known as “Freedom Sunday,” Dr. King addressed a crowd of 30,000 at Soldier Field. His powerful speech spoke about Chicago’s housing crisis. Dr. King also demanded school desegregation, better wages, special institutions for children with disabilities, and teaching black history all year. An estimate of 14 demands was sent to the Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, at city hall.

Dr. King’s crusade for fair housing was met with violence from many white residents of Chicago. Dr. King led marches in Gage and Marquette Park. Marchers were attacked, and racial slurs were hurled at them. Rocks, bricks, and bottles were thrown at Dr. King, striking him on the side of his head. Dr. King told reporters, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.”

In late August, Mayor Daley and Dr. King met to negotiate an agreement for better fair housing policies. King left Chicago under the impression that the agreement was the first step, but the Daley administration reneged on its promises.

When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, riots caused destruction in several urban cities, including on Chicago’s west and south side. Several buildings were destroyed, and nine people were killed. The devastation across the city cost an estimate of $9M and several people homeless.

A year before his death, Dr. King spoke at Stanford University, warning about violence in the black community. “Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve,” said Dr. King.

In the wake of Dr. King’s death outrage, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included the Fair Housing Act that was passed in Congress. The Act protects people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities.

The apartment building where Dr. King lived was destroyed due to the riot and continued poverty. In 2011, was the opening of the Dr. King Legacy Apartments. The 45-unit offers two, three, and four-bedroom apartments equipped with a kitchen and baths for low-income families. The windows framed with yellow boxes mark the apartment where Dr. King once lived. The amenities include a courtyard, exercise facility. There is a Martin Luther King Fair Housing Museum on the main floor.

Today, many African Americans still face housing issues that Dr. King fought for over 50 years ago. In 2021, African Americans were victims of appraisal discrimination where a home is valued lower than its actual worth because of the homeowner’s race.

An African American homeowner in Indianapolis filed a discrimination lawsuit after removing items that identified her race and had a white male friend in on the appraisal. The value of her home went up an extra $100,000.

An African American couple in San Francisco became concerned when they had their home appraised that was very low. They decided to get a second appraisal where they removed items that identified their race and asked a white friend to pretend to be the homeowner. Their appraisal went up close an extra $500,000.

The fight for freedom, justice, and equality continues. Dr. King’s dream requires every individual to fight for his legacy until there is progress. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tammy Gibson is a black history traveler and author. Find her on social media @SankofaTravelHr


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