Fifty-seven years ago this month, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Chicago with plans to target public and private institutions “which have created infamous slum conditions directly responsible for the involuntary enslavement of millions of Black men, women and children.”
Yet for generations of Chicagoans born after King’s murder in 1968, the civil rights leader may be more recognizable for the national holiday named in his honor — than for his leadership of what he called the first significant freedom movement in the North.
Local author Jonathan Eig — who has profiled Muhammad Ali, Al Capone, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig and the birth control pill — took on King’s story for his next book, “King: A Life,” which will be released May 16. Signed copies can be purchased now through Unabridged Books.
“We forget that King really did challenge us to rethink the whole structure of American society and was pushing us to really go farther,” Eig said. “He was a lot more radical and a lot more courageous than we give him credit for.”
Eig answered questions about King’s time in Chicago during a phone interview this week. (This conversation has been edited for clarity.)
So take me back. King moved to Chicago in 1966. This is something I didn’t learn in school. Why did he come here?
Well, they really should teach it in (Chicago Public Schools) because a big part of the reason he came here was because of CPS. Initially, he was recruited to help integrate Chicago schools. There was a big push in the early- and mid-1960s to work on better integrating the Chicago school system because schools were just terribly segregated and predominantly Black schools were getting inferior service, inferior infrastructure and the city’s Black leaders were really pushing hard. They wanted the superintendent of schools (Benjamin Willis) to resign. So, that’s what initially got King interested in Chicago.
[ What were ‘Willis wagons’ that got Bernie Sanders arrested in 1963? ]
[ Photo gallery: Bernie Sanders and the Willis wagon protests of 1963 ]
He came to Chicago often to speak and join protests, not just around the schools, but segregated housing as well. He felt that Chicago was pretty well organized and that he would be able to quickly get a strong movement assembled here.
He felt like it was time to do something in the North. It was time to show that racism and segregation were not limited to places like Selma and Montgomery. He could have chosen a lot of different cities — Cleveland and Philadelphia were considered. He never really seriously considered New York because the politics there were messy.
Chicago won out, in part, because of guys like Al Raby, who was already doing a terrific job rallying the troops.
[ Al Raby held no elective office during his lifetime. But he had a profound influence on those who did. ]
I didn’t know the support system here was already so strong.
Yeah, that was a big part of it and Chicagoans were asking him to come. People like Al Raby felt like King would bring the kind of national media attention that they needed to push (Mayor Richard J. Daley) and Superintendent Willis to take action.
[ Rare photos of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Chicago ]
When King arrived here in January 1966, how was he treated?
The question is, by whom? He was treated very well by the Black community and by the organizers who brought him here. Some of the Chicago gangs organized to try to help protect him. Mahalia Jackson cooked for him and his family. But he was not very well received by the white establishment and, in particular, by Mayor Daley who saw him as an outsider, a troublemaker and a threat to his regime.
[ Tribune story from March 26, 1966: “King says he is not leading anti-Daley bid” ]
At the time, Tribune editorials about King were not kind.
The Tribune made a big deal about the fact that Coretta Scott King wore a fur-lined collar — they were trying to make her look like a hoity toity woman. She definitely was not. They treated King terribly. So, sad to say the Tribune did not win any prizes for its open mindedness when King came to town. The Trib was also really brutal in its editorials.
Where did he stay?
When King came to town he lived in an apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. in North Lawndale. The rent was $90 a month, which comes out to something close to $800 today. That goes to show that even in the poor neighborhoods where this terrible apartment was — that needed massive repairs and renovations — lots of landlords were gouging their low-income tenants.
How successful was King in trying to make any lasting changes here in Chicago?
Oh, that’s a great question. A lot of people view his Chicago campaign as a failure. He did not win the kind of deep and lasting structural changes that he sought. And the way people tend to portray that is that he was outsmarted or outmaneuvered by Daley. I think there’s another way of looking at it.
Martin Luther King gave Daley and Chicago a path forward. He showed them in concrete terms how we could improve the city’s race relations, fight poverty, integrate neighborhoods and schools. He offered a blueprint and Chicago turned it down and walked away from it. That’s how I would perceive it. I don’t think it was a failure — I think it was stiff-necked, stubborn opposition from the people who were clinging to the status quo.
As part of your research for the book, were you able to find anything about King’s time in Chicago that was surprising or maybe unexpected?
Well, he tended to spend three or four days out of each week here. I wouldn’t call him a real Chicago resident during those times. He didn’t have time to get to know the neighborhoods, catch a ballgame or anything fun. He was under a lot of stress, a lot of pressure and was being called back down to the South. He was under attack not only from Daley but from (FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover and (President Lyndon Johnson) over King’s growing opposition to the Vietnam War. King didn’t get the chance to know Chicago the way he could have under better circumstances.
That said, he did get to meet and work with a lot of people like Al Raby, like Timuel Black, he organized a lot of volunteers from the University of Chicago including people like Bernardine Dohrn. He touched a lot of people’s lives.
Even some of the Vice Lords gang leaders who met with King were really struck by how patient he was, how much time he spent getting to know them. He would sit up for hours in his apartment and just meet with anybody who came by unannounced. He tended to sit on the floor. He didn’t want to assume a position of superiority. I think people in Chicago were really impressed with his humility.
You wrote a book about Muhammad Ali and now a biography about King. They have something in common, right?
Ali and King were almost born on the same date (King’s birthday is January 15 and Ali’s birthday is Jan. 17).
I was surprised, when doing a little bit of research, that Ali was living in Chicago at the same time as King. Did they ever get to meet up in Chicago? I can’t find anything in the Tribune archives that puts both Ali and King in the same place at the same time.
No, not in Chicago. I don’t think they ever crossed paths in Chicago. They did meet a couple of times — once in Louisville and once in New York. They seemed to get along great.
There’s a wonderful video of a news conference in Louisville where, first of all, Ali interrupts Martin Luther King — who else would have the nerve to interrupt Martin Luther King — and he’s got King just cracking up. It’s really one of my favorite moments with the two men, but I don’t think they ever connected in Chicago.
It’s just incredible to me that these two massive figures in history were living here in Chicago at the same time.
Don’t forget — you had (Nation of Islam leader) Elijah Muhammad, too. Malcolm X was not living here but because of his connection to the Nation of Islam, Chicago was really at the center of this great struggle during the 1960s.
It really makes me wonder what Chicago could have become.
Yeah, and it’s true for the whole country. Really, think about what happened after the March on Washington. The country had this opportunity. It was this beautiful moment where everybody said, “Wow, this could work. Maybe we’re past the worst of the fighting in Montgomery and Birmingham and maybe we’re evolving as a country. Maybe it’s time to put our racist ways behind us.”
And King was leading the way. But then, inevitably, there was this resistance and people in the establishment from Daley to Hoover to Johnson, they weren’t ready to make big structural changes. They weren’t ready to share power.
Why did you decide to write this book and why do you think we need it now?
For one thing, we’ve turned King into not just a national holiday, but a monument and even a cliché in many ways. We’ve sugarcoated his story — we only talk about “I Have a Dream” and “content of character.” We forget that he really did challenge us to rethink the whole structure of American society and was pushing us to really go farther. He was a lot more radical and a lot more courageous than we give him credit for.
So, I wanted to write a book that would not only remind people of how truly revolutionary he was, but also I wanted to write a book that would humanize him because I think we’ve forgotten that he was a person. In making him a holiday, we’ve kind of lost sight of his humanity. And when you forget that he was a person with weaknesses, with flaws, with bad news, with dark hours, then it’s really hard to even thing about acting on his dream. It’s hard to think about emulating him because you treat him like he’s some kind of a superhero. I wanted to provide a more intimate portrait.
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