Resisting the Struggle: Why Blacks Opposed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago, 1966-1967

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Richard Meister

Second Advisor

James Wolfinger

Third Advisor

Howard O. Lindsey


By 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began to show an increased awareness of the economic plight of the nation's urban Negro population. Looking ahead to northern ghettos, where pockets of poverty and economic imbalance loomed for some 1 million urban blacks by the mid-1960's, Dr. King decided to set up operation in Chicago, and establish a northern strategy for civil rights.

by day, in cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago, blacks scrambled feverishly for an inadequate number of menial and low-paying jobs as janitors, day laborers and cooks. By night, the majority "slummed" in city apartment houses and boarded rooms, sharing beds and bathroom facilities. In many spaces, two to three room apartments would be divided into eight to ten sections, providing a sleeping space for dwellers, but little more. As the numbers of Blacks migrating North reached a crescendo, the need for jobs and housing for incoming southerners put more and more pressure on city officials to find some solution toward accommodation-- while avoiding an alienation of core blocks of the city's white support. These issues called out to Dr. King, yet, they were clearly a vast departure from the challenges presented to him in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.

Dr. King's arrival (along with SCLC leaders Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Rustin) and establishment of residence in Chicago in 1966 brought to a head several tensions which were brewing just below the surface of a complex northern empire, where segregation, police brutality, separate housing and crowded Negro classrooms were a part of long-standing tradition of "de facto" discrimination. Embedded in this complicated relationship between Chicago Negroes and the white political power structure of Mayor Richard J. Daley was a system of patronage support, whereby white politicians controlled black wards through a hierarchy of lieutenants and precinct captains charged with delivering "the vote," in exchange for a small percentage of favors and services-- a system also known as "plantations politics."

Though King's arrival was heralded by many Black Chicagoans and liberal civic organizations, he was also opposed by a distinct action of Negro politicians, ministers and citizens. Most did not want the spotlight of non-violent protest to disturb a way of life that had been planted and nurtured away from southern society-- a northern existence acquired slowly and through many vigilant years of struggle. Many were overly protective (and understandably so) of their relationship with the Daley organization.

Negro businessmen like realtor Carl Hansberry and attorney Earl B. Dickerson became symbolic of the achievements and yearnings of a significant Negro middle class that favored a patriarchal philosophy of self-help and quiet acquiescence to the wishes and expectations of Chicago. Living in the midst of violence and turbulent race relations, these citizens, and others like them, recognized the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a peacemaker and advocate, but seemed to bristle at any notion of partnership or implied leadership. Themes of class, economic empowerment and political independence combined to form resistance to any forfeiture of control over the "uplift" ideologies already at work within some Black urban groups. These concepts would characterize this era in Chicago race relations and political/cultural history and punctuate the impact of Dr. King's Chicago adgenda.

In this project, we will examine the varied layers of King's visit to Chicago nearly 40 years ago. Why was Dr. King's help so resented by some members of the Negro community? What role did the patronage system fostered by Richard J. Daley play in that opposition? Were King's detractors motivated more by class, politically-, or personally-driven factors? And to what extent was the non-legalized custom of "de facto" discrimination at work in Chicago culture-- was it the underlying current driving one the the few times in King's career when he failed in his attempts to organize and desegregate Negro life?

Against a backdrop of overcrowded, inferior housing for blacks, a public backlash by Negro citizens against school superintendent Dr. Benjamin Willis and daily exhibitions of City Hall protests by various cammunity and civic organizations, Rev. King landed in Chicago, looking for a way to "erase the inequities of our brother and sisters living in poverty and despair" in "Mayor Daley's Chicago." Though Dr. King had visited other northern cities like Watts and Detroit, what greeted him at this moment, in Chicago, was the advent of a sobering and unexpected awakening to northern discrimination and prejudice; his experiences here would prompt him to call Chicago "the most segregated city in America." As well, the opposition he would face from members of the black community (for example, influential Negro Congressman William L. Dawson and Baptist minister Rev. Joseph H. Jackson) would make his goal of establishing a northern civil rights movement all the more difficult to attain. Chicago was, indeed, very different from the small town hamlets of Montgomery and Selma, Alabama where Dr. King had experienced great success and achievement of his political and social agendas. Just how different Chicago was would soon become apparent as both the King and Daley camps became entangled in a political and cultural battle-of-wills that would not culminate until some months later. Unexpectedly, the Chicago campaign ended with Dr. King's exit-- and a pronouncement of victory over segregation and racial boundaries. However, citizens and policy makers continued to search for several more years for a solution to the long and embittered history of racial discrimination and separate communities Chicago has since become well-known for.


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