May/June 2006 issue of Poverty & Race
Martin Luther King’s publicity-savvy Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Chicago with a campaign to attack racial biases and improve the quality of life in the city’s notoriously squalid black ghettos. The SCLC-Coordinating Council of Community Organizations collaboration was particularly focused on housing discrimination, but it targeted an array of race-based urban ills. After the Southern campaign’s success prodding the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, movement strategists thought a Northern strategy could also prompt legislative action.
The flagrantly racist resistance of Southern whites to the SCLC’s Southern campaigns garnered national sympathy. But the Chicago demonstrations for open housing and education equality attracted much less national support. What’s more, the violent uprisings in Harlem, New York in 1964 and Watts, California in 1965 had triggered a growing white backlash.
Chicago was an urban area with easily identified ills: Housing and job discrimination were among the most pressing problems for the city’s African-American population. But the issue of education generated the most street heat among blacks in the Windy City. The failure to address school overcrowding and other issues of educational neglect in the city’s black communities sparked many angry protests. Al Raby, the man who led CCCO and importuned King and company to come to Chicago, was himself a former teacher drawn into the movement through the education issue.
During the Summer of 1965, the city experienced one of the most sustained periods of protests in Chicago history. This protest infuriated the administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley, which denied it could do much to address educational issues, even as it offered conciliatory rhetoric. His response presaged the administration’s reaction to the Chicago Freedom Movement’s later charges of housing discrimination and slum-like conditions. During 1966, the Movement organized several large marches dedicated to housing issues. King was hit with a rock during a march through one of the city’s most racially hostile neighborhoods, and that incident came to symbolize the Movement’s failure. King’s foray into the wilds of the Windy City is retrospectively judged as an overreach that mistakenly applied Southern-born tactics to Northern realities.
There is some truth to that assessment, but there’s more. The Chicago Freedom Movement certainly failed to end slums; that was only a rhetorical goal. But it also failed to revitalize any single neighborhood. In fact, with its focus on open housing in other neighborhoods, it may have helped devitalize the very communities King hoped to save. Some research (especially that of William Julius Wilson) suggests many black neighborhoods were hurt by the exodus of middle-class African Americans who had served as stabilizing factors. Ultimately, even those fleeing middle-class blacks wound up in racially-segregated neighborhoods.
Changes in the City’s Racial Landscape
However, the Chicago Freedom Movement did provoke some serious changes in the city’s racial landscape; it shot some adrenalin into the city’s activist community. Al Raby and other Movement leaders intentionally employed some gang members as protection on marches through dangerous neighborhoods. Many youths were radicalized by that contact, and they helped form the basis of a vital Black Panther chapter in the city. Chronic police harassment of militant black organizations and the brazen assassination of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark help spark an independent political movement that led eventually to the 1983 election of Harold Washington as the city’s first African-American mayor.
Signs of Success Are Rare
But 40 years after that promising attempt to connect the Southern Civil Rights Movement to the Northern freedom struggle, signs of success are rare. The “slums” that King targeted evolved into “ghettos,” and now those “inner-city” neighborhoods offer graphic testimony that semantics make little difference to residents’ quality of life. The state of black Chicago in 2006 displays little of what was promised 40 years ago.
There have been some bright spots. The electoral realm, for example, has seen an explosion of African-American representation, including the mayoral elections of Harold Washington in 1983 and 1987; the 1992 election of Carol Moseley Braun as the first black female US Senator; the 2004 election and growing prominence of US Senator Barack Obama, only the third black US Senator since Reconstruction. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was one of King’s lieutenants, is now leader of the Rainbow/PUSH organization and the father of Cong. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL). And there are many other tales of black political triumph in the city.
But overall things are not good. According to a recent Urban League study, “Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago,” the city remains “deeply in the thrall of racial separation and racial inequality.” Among the figures noted in the 2005 report is that the average black Chicagoan lives in a census tract where about four of every five residents are African-American; the average white lives in a tract where less than 1 of every 10 residents is black. Within Chicago, the average black K-12 public school student attends a school that is 86% African-American. Black students are less exposed to other groups than any other ethnic/racial group in the city. This state of virtual apartheid has not changed in any significant way since King’s movement left town, and the other racial disparities remain largely unchanged.
These imbalances are in income, education, employment, poverty rates, economic vitality, etc. In income, for example, black households are disproportionately low earners. The median income of the average black neighborhood was $36,298 in 2004 (the latest year for which there are figures— many experts estimate that figure dropped a bit in 2006), $61,952 in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Education has remained a potent issue as study after study confirms the dismal state of schools in the city’s black communities. Drop-out rates remain high. In fact, the Urban League study reveals that only 38% of black males have graduated high school since 1995. An analyses of jobless data found that in 2004, more than 50% of so-called “unattached youth” ages 16-24 were dangerously disconnected from both the labor market and the educational system. Of the city’s 15 poorest neighborhoods, 14 were disproportionately black and 11 were more that 94% black. In 15 of the city’s 77 community areas in 2004, more than 28% of the children lived in “deep poverty,” and 14 of these neighborhoods were in predominantly black areas of Chicago’s south and west sides.
And this is where inadequate education and poverty connect: Of the city’s 293 predominantly black schools, fully two-thirds (170) report 90% or more of their students as “low-income,” and low-income has been closely correlated with poor academic performance. Nearly six in ten African-American ninth graders do not graduate with a regular high school degree within four years. Black males are significantly absent in the Chicago region’s institutions of higher education. They have very little presence at the area’s most competitive colleges and universities. In fact, black males are becoming less visible in many aspects of American life (but that’s another problem, perhaps for another time).
One of the fallouts from this educational failure is the destructive incarceration epidemic that found nearly 23,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities in 2004. Sixty-six percent of the state’s roughly 45,000 prisoners and 63% of its 34,000 parolees in 2004 were African-American. In 2004, the state’s incarceration rate for African Americans was more than ten times the rate for whites.
Forty years since the Chicago Freedom Movement, there are signs of progress as well: Black poverty rates fell, black employment rose, black median family income and college enrollment also rose. As in the rest of America, there is a “best of times, worst of times” quality to black life in Chicago. Unfortunately, the worst times are getting even worse, and the best are declining.