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Dr. King’s Fight for Open Housing

Posted on 03. Apr, 2018 by

When envisioning the Civil Rights Movement, many people probably think of Rosa Parks in Alabama, school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, or sit-ins in North Carolina. Northern cities are not usually the first to come to mind. The Open Housing Movement, however, was born not in the South, but in Chicago, Illinois.

Seminary student Jesse Jackson was put in charge of the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket. Source: Oxford African American Studies Center 

When Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived in Chicago in 1966, racism and segregation were widespread, but so was grassroots activism. Organizations like the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, led by schoolteacher Albert Raby, worked to desegregate schools. Dr. King’s arrival on the scene brought national attention and exposure to a pervasive problem. The SCLC launched the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket, which won thousands of jobs for black people in the dairy, soda, and supermarket industries under the leadership of seminary student Jesse Jackson. Tenants’ unions cropped up in an effort to reveal inhumane living conditions in slums, and tenants engaged in rent strikes. When real estate firms attempted to evict the striking renters, legal support from the tenants’ unions made it impossible, and the firms were forced to negotiate.

In conjunction with the Chicago Freedom Movement (a campaign to bring civil rights activities to the north), Dr. King and the SCLC held rallies and peaceful protests outside real estate offices and in all-white neighborhoods. One such march turned violent when demonstrators were met with an angry white mob. The mob threw bottles and bricks, and Dr. King was hit by a rock. Of the experience, Dr. King said “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.”

Dr. King speaks with reporters during a demonstration against Balin Real Estate. Source: Oxford African American Studies Center

As the movement pushed forward, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley was eager to find a way to end the demonstrations and restore order. He met with Dr. King and other lead activists to work out a summit agreement, which culminated in the creation of one of the nation’s first fair housing organizations, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. The summit also resulted in the Chicago Housing Authority promising to build some public housing units, and the Mortgage Bankers Association agreeing to make mortgages available regardless of race.

Despite the alleged success, the agreements made at the summit were barely enforced. Dr. King expressed his disappointment in this result just one year later, saying “it appears that for all intents and purposes, the public agencies have [reneged] on the agreement and have, in fact given credence to [those] who proclaim the housing agreement a sham and a batch of false promises.” After Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, riots broke out across the country. The public’s reaction to his death was so intense that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle felt they had no choice but to take action, if not to honor Dr. King’s mission then to pacify protestors. As a result, the Fair Housing Act was passed just one week later.


To learn more about the Chicago Open Housing Movement, check out the following links:

50 Years Ago, Martin Luther King Jr. Fought for Open Housing in Chicago

The Chicago Campaign

Seven Days Documentary

Operation Breadbasket

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