It is reasonable to believe that if the problems of Chicago, the nation's second largest city, can be solved, they can be solved everywhere.
JULY 26, 1965
King leads march to Chicago City Hall and addresses a rally sponsored by Chicago's Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO)
JANUARY 7, 1966 Announces the start of the Chicago Campaign
JULY 10 At "Freedom Sunday" rally at Soldier's Field, launches drive to make Chicago an "open city" for housing
JULY 12-14 Racial rioting on Chicago's West Side results in two deaths and widespread destruction
AUGUST 5 Angry whites attack civil rights march through Chicago's southwest side
AUGUST 26 Arranges "Summit Agreement" with Mayor R. Daley and other Chicago leaders
In the early summer of 1965 we received invitations from Negro leaders in the city of Chicago to join with them in their fight for quality integrated education. We had watched this movement with interest, and members of the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had maintained constant communication with the leadership. As a result of meetings between members of my staff and leaders of Chicago civil rights organizations, I agreed to accept the invitation to spend some time in Chicago, beginning July 24.
Later in the year, after careful deliberation with my staff, the SCLC decided to begin a concentrated effort to create a broadly based, vibrant, nonviolent movement in the North. Our efforts would be directed at the social ills which plagued Chicago-the potentially explosive ghetto pathology of the Northern Negro.
My concern for the welfare of Negroes in the North was no less than that for Negroes in the South, and my conscience dictated that I should commit as much of my personal and organizational resources to their cause as was humanly possible. Our primary objective was to bring about the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums and ultimately to make slums a moral and financial liability upon the whole community. Chicago was riot alone among cities with a slum problem, but certainly we knew that slum conditions there were the prototype of those chiefly responsible for the Northern urban race problem.
"Breaking down the infamous wall of segregation"
We worked under the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, a coalition of local civil rights groups, convened by Al Raby, a former Chicago public school teacher. Our main concentration would be on the school issue-a fight for quality integrated education which had been waged in that city for more than five years. This did not mean that we would stop there, because it was painfully clear that the school issue was merely symptomatic of a system which relegated thousands of Negroes into economic and spiritual deprivation.
The only solution to breaking down the infamous wall of segregation in Chicago rested in our being able to mobilize both the white and black communities into a massive nonviolent movement, which would stop at nothing short of changing the ugly face of the black ghetto into a community of love and justice. Essentially it meant removing future generations from dilapidated tenements, opening the doors of job opportunities to all regardless of their color, and making the resources of all social institutions available for their uplifting into the mainstream of American life.
No longer could we afford to isolate a major segment of our society in a ghetto prison and expect its spiritually crippled wards to accept the advanced social responsibilities of the world's leading nation. Birmingham, Alabama, once the most segregated city in the south, had been our target city for public accommodations, and our nonviolent movement there gave birth to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Selma, Alabama, had been our pilot city for the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, and I had faith that Chicago, considered one of the most segregated cities in the nation, could well become the metropolis where a meaningful nonviolent movement could arouse the conscience of this nation to deal realistically with the Northern ghetto.
We had no illusions that we could undertake alone such a mammoth task; therefore, our advance SCLC team headed by the Rev. James Bevel laid the groundwork for our movement. We were confident that a convergence of many forces-religious, civic, political, and academicwould come about to demand a solution to Chicago's problems.
It did not require an in-depth evaluation to determine what evils had to be eliminated from our society. Any efforts made to extend and prolong the suffering of Negroes imprisoned in the ghetto would be a flagrant attempt to perpetuate a social crisis capable of exploding in our faces and searing the very soul of this nation. In this regard, it was neither I, nor SCLC, that decided to go north, but rather, existing deplorable conditions and the conscience of good to the cause that summoned us.
"Lawndale was truly an island of poverty"
During 1966 I lived and worked in Chicago. The civil rights movement had too often been middle-class oriented and had not moved to the grassroots levels of our communities. So I thought the great challenge facing the civil rights movement was to move into these areas to organize and gain identity with ghetto dwellers and young people in the ghetto. This was one of the reasons why I felt that in moving to Chicago I would live in the very heart of the ghetto. I would not only experience what my brothers and sisters experience in living conditions, but I would be able to live with them.
In a big city like Chicago it is hard to do it overnight, but I thought that all of the civil rights organizations had to work more to organize the grassroots levels of our communities. There, the problems of poverty and despair were more than an academic exercise. The phone rang daily with stories of the most drastic forms of man's inhumanity to man and I found myself fighting a daily battle against the depression and hopelessness which the heart of our cities pumps into the spiritual bloodstream of our lives. The problems of poverty and despair were graphically illustrated. I remember a baby attacked by rats in a Chicago slum. I remember a young Negro murdered by a gang in Cicero, where he was looking for a job.
The slum of Lawndale was truly an island of poverty in the midst of an ocean of plenty. Chicago boasted the highest per capita income of any city in the world, but you would never believe it looking out of the windows of my apartment in the slum of Lawndale. From this vantage point you saw only hundreds of children playing in the streets. You saw the light of intelligence glowing in their beautiful dark eyes. Then you realized their overwhelming joy because someone had simply stopped to say hello; for they lived in a world where even their parents were often forced to ignore them. In the tight squeeze of economic pressure, their mothers and fathers both had to work; indeed, more often than not, the father will hold two jobs, one in the day and another at night. With the long distances ghetto parents had to travel to work and the emotional exhaustion that comes from the daily struggle to survive in a hostile world, they were left with too little time or energy to attend to the emotional needs of their growing children.
Too soon you began to see the effects of this emotional and environmental deprivation. The children's clothes were too skimpy to protect them from the Chicago wind, and a closer look revealed the mucus in the corners of their bright eyes, and you were reminded that vitamin pills and flu shots were luxuries which they could ill afford. The "runny noses" of ghetto children became a graphic symbol of medical neglect in a society which had mastered most of the diseases from which they will too soon die. There was something wrong in a society which allowed this to happen.
My neighbors paid more rent in the substandard slums of Lawndale than the whites paid for modern apartments in the suburbs. The situation was much the same for consumer goods, purchase prices of homes, and a variety of other services. This exploitation was possible because so many of the residents of the ghetto had no personal means of transportation. It was a vicious circle. You could not get a job because you were poorly educated, and you had to depend on welfare to feed your children; but if you received public aid in Chicago, you could not own property, not even an automobile, so you were condemned to the jobs and shops closest to your home. Once confined to this isolated community, one no longer participated in a free economy, but was subject to price fixing and wholesale robbery by many of the merchants of the area.
Finally, when a man was able to make his way through the maze of handicaps and get just one foot out of the jungle of poverty and exploitation, he was subject to the whims of the political and economic giants of the city, which moved in impersonally to crush the little flower of success that had just begun to bloom.
It is a psychological axiom that frustration generates aggression. Certainly, the Northern ghetto daily victimized its inhabitants. The Chicago West Side with its concentration of slums, the poor, and the young, represented in grotesque exaggeration the suppression that Negroes of all classes feel within the ghetto.
The Northern ghetto had become a type of colonial area. The colony was powerless because all important decisions affecting the community were made from the outside. Many of its inhabitants even had their daily lives dominated by the welfare worker and the policeman. The profits of landlord and merchant were removed and seldom if ever reinvested. The only positive thing the larger society saw in the slum was that it was a source of cheap surplus labor in times of economic boom. Otherwise, its inhabitants were blamed for their own victimization.
"An emotional pressure cooker"
This type of daily frustration was violence visited upon the slum inhabitants. Our society was only concerned that the aggressions thus generated did not burst outward. Therefore, our larger society had encouraged the hostility it created within slum dwellers to turn;' inward-to manifest itself in aggression toward one another or in :, selfdestruction and apathy. The larger society was willing to let the frustrations born of racism's violence become internalized and con. sume its victims. America's horror was only expressed when the aggression turned outward, when the ghetto and its controls could no longer contain its destructiveness. In many a week as many Negro youngsters were killed in gang fights as were killed in the riots. Yet t there was no citywide expression of horror.
Our own children lived with us in Lawndale, and it was only a few days before we became aware of the change in their behavior. Their tempers flared, and they sometimes reverted to almost infantile behavior. During the summer, I realized that the crowded flat in which we lived was about to produce an emotional explosion in my own family. It was just too hot, too crowded, too devoid of creative forms of recreation. There was just not space enough in the neighborhood to run off the energy of childhood without running into busy, traffic-laden streets. And I understood anew the conditions which make of the ghetto an emotional pressure cooker.
In all the speaking that I have done in the United States before varied audiences, including some hostile whites, the only time that I have ever been booed was one night in our regular weekly mass meeting by some angry young men of our movement. I went home that night with an ugly feeling. Selfishly, I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last twelve years. Why would they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself, and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people.
For twelve years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, "all, here and now." I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They booed because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises, and because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.
When we first went to Chicago, there were those who were saying that the nonviolent movement couldn't work in the North, that problems were too complicated and that they were much different from the South and all that. I contended that nonviolence could work in the North.
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. 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. Now is the time to end the long and desolate night of slumism Now is the time to have a confrontation between the forces resisting change and the forces demanding change. Now is the time to let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
We also come here today to affirm that we will no longer sit idly by in agonizing deprivation and wait on others to provide our freedom. We will be sadly mistaken if we think freedom is some lavish dish that the federal government and the white man will pass out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. Freedom is never voluntarily granted by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.
"Resorting to violence against oppression"
The responsibility for the social eruption in July 1966 lay squarely upon the shoulders of those elected officials whose myopic social vision had been further blurred by political expedience rather than commitment to the betterment of living conditions and dedication to the eradication of slums and the forces which create and maintain slum communities. It must be remembered that genuine peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. Justice was not present on Chicago's West Side, or for that matter, in other slum communities.
Riots grow out of intolerable conditions. Violent revolts are generated by revolting conditions and there is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people who feel they have no stake in it, who feel they have nothing to lose. To the young victim of the slums, this society has so limited life that the expression of his manhood is reduced to the ability to defend himself physically. No wonder it appears logical to him to strike out, resorting to violence against oppression. That is the only way he thinks he gets recognition.
After the riot in Chicago that summer, I was greatly discouraged. But we had trained a group of about two thousand disciplined devotees of nonviolence who were willing to take blows without retaliating. We started out engaging in constitutional privileges, marching before real estate offices in all-white communities. And that nonviolent, disciplined, determined force created such a crisis in the city of Chicago that the city had to do something to change conditions. We didn't have any Molotov cocktails, we didn't have any bricks, we didn't have any guns, we just had the power of our bodies and our souls. There was power there, and it was demonstrated once more.
I remember when the riot broke out that summer, some of the gang leaders and fellows were out there encouraging the riot. I'd been trying to talk to them, and I couldn't get to them. Then they sent the National Guard in, and that night I said, "Well, why aren't you all out there tonight? Now what you've got to do is join with us and let us get a movement that the National Guard can't stop. This is what we've got to do. I'm going on with nonviolence because I've tried it so long. I've come to see how far it has brought us. And I'm not going to turn my back on it now."
In the aftermath of the riot there were concerted attempts to discredit the nonviolent movement. Scare headlines announced paramilitary conspiracies only to have the attorney general of the United States announce that these claims were totally unfounded. More seriously, there was a concerted attempt to place the responsibility for the riot upon the nonviolent Chicago Freedom Movement and upon myself. Both of these maneuvers were attempts to dodge the fundamental issue of racial subjugation. They represented an unwillingness to do anything more than put the lid back on the pot and a refusal to make fundamental structural changes required to right our racial wrongs.
The Chicago Freedom Movement would not be dampened by these phony accusations. We would not divert our energies into meaningless introspection. The best remedy we had to offer for riots as to press our nonviolent program even more vigorously. We stepped up our plans for nonviolent direct actions to make Chicago an open and just city.
"Demonstrations for open housing"
Midsummer of 1966 saw the boil of Northern racism burst and spread its poisons throughout the streets of Chicago as thousands of Negro and white marchers began their demonstrations for open housing. When we were demonstrating around the whole issue of open housing, we were confronted with massive violence as we marched into certain areas. We suffered in the process of trying to dramatize the issue through our marches into all-white areas that denied us access to houses and where real estate agents would not allow us to see the listings.
Bottles and bricks were thrown at us; we were often beaten. Some of the people who had been brutalized in Selma and who were preesent at the Capitol ceremonies in Montgomery led marchers in the suburbs of Chicago amid a rain of rocks and bottles, among burning automobiles, to the thunder of jeering thousands, many of them waving Nazi flags. Swastikas bloomed in Chicago parks like misbegotten weeds. Our marchers were met by a hailstorm of bricks, bottles, and firecrackers. "White power" became the racist catcall, punctuated by the vilest of obscenities-most frequently directly at Catholic priests and nuns among the marchers. I've been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I had never seen, even in Mississippi, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as in Chicago.
When we had our open housing marches many of our white liberal friends cried out in horror and dismay: "You are creating hatred and hostility in the white communities in which you are marching. You are only developing a white backlash." They failed to realize that the hatred and the hostilities were already latently or subconsciously present. Our marches merely brought them to the surface.
What insane logic it is to condemn the robbed man because his possession of money precipitates the evil act of robbery. Society must condemn the robber and never the robbed. What insane logic it is to condemn Socrates because his philosophical delving precipitated the evil; act of making him drink the hemlock. What an insane logic it is td'. condemn Jesus Christ because his love for God and Truth precipitated the evil act of his crucifixion. We must condemn those who are perpetuating the violence, and not those individuals who engage in the pursuit of their constitutional rights.
We were the social physicians of Chicago revealing that there was a terrible cancer. We didn't cause it. This cancer was not in its terminal state, it was in its early stages and might be cured if we got at it.. Not only were we the social physicians, in the physical sense, but we were the social psychiatrists, bringing out things that were in the subconscious all along. Those people probably had latent hostilities toward Negroes for many, many years. As long as the struggle was down in Alabama and Mississippi, they could look afar and think about it and say how terrible people are. When they discovered brotherhood had to be a reality in Chicago and that brotherhood extended to next door, then those latent hostilities came out.
Day after day during those Chicago marches, I never saw anyone retaliate with violence. There were lots of provocations, not only screaming white hoodlums lining the sidewalks, but also groups of Negro militants talking about guerrilla warfare. We had some gang leaders and members marching with us. I remember walking with the Blackstone Rangers while bottles were flying from the sidelines, and I saw their noses being broken and blood flowing from their wounds; and I saw them continue and not retaliate, not one of them, with violence. I am convinced that even violent temperaments can be channeled through nonviolent discipline, if they can act constructively and express through an effective channel their very legitimate anger.
In August, after being out a few days in Mississippi for the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, .I was back in Chicago. The Board of Realtors of the Real Estate Board of the City of Chicago made certain statements concerning a willingness to do things that had not been done before. We wanted to see if they were serious about it. A meeting on August 17 lasted almost ten hours. It was a fruitful meeting, but we didn't get enough out of that meeting to merit calling off our demonstrations, so our demonstrations continued.
I just want to warn the city that it would be an act of folly, in the midst of seeking to negotiate a solution to this problem, to go seek an injunction, because if they don't know it, we are veteran jai l-goers. And for us, jail cells are not dungeons of shame, they are havens of freedom and human dignity. I've been to jail in Alabama, I've been to jail in Florida, I've been to jail in Georgia, I've been to jail in Mississippi, I've been to jail in Virginia, and I'm ready to go to jail in Chicago. All I'm saying, my friends, is very simple: we sing a song in this movement, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round."
We had almost round-the-clock negotiations and hammered out what would probably stand out as the most significant and farreaching victory that has ever come about in a Northern community on the whole question of open housing. For the first time in the city of Chicago, and probably any other city, the whole power structure was forced by the power of the nonviolent movement to sit down and negotiate and capitulate, and made concessions that had never been made before. Our nonviolent marches in Chicago of the summer brought about a housing agreement which, if implemented, would have been the strongest step toward open housing taken in any city in the nation.
"A drive to end slums"
When we first joined forces with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, we outlined a drive to end slums. We viewed slums and slumism as more than a problem of dilapidated, inadequate housing. We understood them as the end product of domestic colonialism: slum housing and slum schools, unemployment and underemployment, segregated and inadequate education, welfare dependency and political servitude. Because no single attack could hope to deal with this overwhelming problem, we established a series of concurrent projects aimed at each facet. Two significant programs were developed to this end.
We had a vigorous, turbulent campaign to make Chicago an open city. We knew that in spite of a marvelous open housing agreement on paper that we reached in Chicago, open housing was not going to be a reality in Chicago in the next year or two. We knew that it was going to take time to really open that city, and we could not neglect those who lived in the ghetto communities in the:; process.
At the same time Negro neighborhoods had to be made more hospitable for those who remained. Tenant unions, modeled after:; labor organizations, became the collective bargaining agents between', landlord and resident. This program had remarkable success. In less:` than a year, unions were formed in three of the city's worst slum` and ghetto areas. The collective bargaining contracts also included':, such measures as rent freezes and stabilization, daily janitorial and sanitation services, and immediate repairs of facilities that jeopardized health and safety. Twelve other smaller tenants unions also sprung up in various communities throughout the city. All met regularly in an informal federation.
Another phase of the housing thrust concerned neighborhood rehabilitation. The unique aspect of this program lay in the fact that the rehabilitated buildings would be turned over to housing . cooperatives organized in each of the neighborhoods. The residents ;f therefore gained their much-needed voice in management and ad- r ministration of the properties. It was through such moves that we ;; hoped to break the cycle of defeatism and psychological servitude that marked the mentality of slumism, achieving human as well as housing renewal.
The most spectacularly successful program in Chicago was Operation Breadbasket. Operation Breadbasket had a very simple program but a powerful one: "If you respect my dollar, you must 'P respect my person." The philosophical undergirding of Operation :; Breadbasket rested in the belief that many retail business and consumer goods industries depleted the ghetto by selling to Negroes without returning to the community any of the profits through fair hiring practices. To reverse this pattern Operation Breadbasket committees selected a target industry, then obtained the employment statistics of individual companies within it. If the proportion of Negro employees was unsatisfactory, or if they were confined to the menial jobs, the company was approached to negotiate a more equitable employment practice. Leverage was applied where necessary through selective buying campaigns organized by the clergymen through their congregations and through the movement. They simply said, "We will no longer spend our money where we cannot get substantial jobs."
By 1967 SCLC had Operation Breadbasket functioning in some twelve cities, and the results were remarkable. In Chicago, Operation Breadbasket successfully completed negotiations with three major industries: milk, soft drinks, and chain grocery stores. Four of the companies involved concluded reasonable agreements only after short "don't buy" campaigns. Seven other companies were able to make the requested changes across the conference table, without necessitating a boycott. Two other companies, after providing their employment information to the ministers, were sent letters of commendation for their healthy equal-employment practices. The net results added up to approximately eight hundred new and upgraded jobs for Negro employees, worth a little over $7 million in new annual income for Negro families. We added a new dimension to Operation Breadbasket. Along with requesting new job opportunities, we requested that businesses with stores in the ghetto deposit the income for those establishments in Negro-owned banks, and that Negro-owned products be placed on the counters of all their stores.
"A special and unique relationship to Jews"
When we were working in Chicago, we had numerous rent strikes on the West Side, and it was unfortunately true that, in most instances, the persons we had to conduct these strikes against were Jewish landlords. There was a time when the West Side of Chicago was a Jewish ghetto, and when the Jewish community started moving out into other areas, they still owned the property there, and all of the problems of the landlord came into being.
We were living in a slum apartment owned by a Jew and a number of others, and we had to have a rent strike. We were paying $94 for four rundown, shabby rooms, and we would go out on our open housing marches on Gage Park and other places and we discovered that whites with five sanitary, nice, new rooms, apartments with five rooms, were paying only $78 a month. We were paying 20 percent tax.
The Negro ends up paying a color tax, and this has happened in instances where Negroes actually confronted Jews as the landlord or the storekeeper. The irrational statements that have been made are the result of these confrontations.
The limited degree of Negro anti-Semitism is substantially a Northern ghetto phenomenon; it virtually does not exist in the South. The urban Negro has a special and unique relationship to Jews. He meets them in two dissimilar roles. On the one hand, he is associated with Jews as some of his most committed and generous partners in the civil rights struggle. On the other hand, he meets them daily as some of his most direct exploiters in the ghetto as slum landlords and gouging shopkeepers. Jews have identified with Negroes voluntarily in the freedom movement, motivated by their religious and cultural commitment to justice. The other Jews who are engaged in commerce in the ghettos are remnants of older communities. A great number of Negro ghettos were formerly Jewish neighborhoods; some storekeepers and landlords remained as population changes occurred. They operate with the ethics of marginal business entrepreneurs, not Jewish ethics, but the distinction is lost on some Negroes who are maltreated by them. Such Negroes, caught in frustration and irrational anger, parrot racial epithets. They foolishly add to the social poison that injures themselves and their own people.
It would be a tragic and immoral mistake to identify the mass of Negroes with the very small number that succumb to cheap and dishonest slogans, just as it would be a serious error to identify all Jews with the few who exploit Negroes under their economic sway.
Negroes cannot irrationally expect honorable Jews to curb the few who are rapacious; they have no means of disciplining or suppressing them. We can only expect them to share our disgust and disdain. Negroes cannot be expected to curb and eliminate the few who are anti-Semitic, because they are subject to no controls we can exercise. We can, however, oppose them, and we have in concrete ways. There has never been a instance of articulated Negro anti-Semitism that was not swiftly condemned by virtually all Negro leaders with the support of the overwhelming majority. I have myself directly attacked it within the Negro community, because it is wrong. I will continue to oppose it, because it is immoral and self destructive.
"A year of beginnings and of transition"
In March 1967 we announced my resumption of regular activities in Chicago on a schedule similar to that I maintained from January through November of the previous year. I took a brief leave of absence from our civil rights action program in order to write a book on the problems and progress of the movement during the past few years. I spent the months of January and February completing my book, entitled Where Do We Go from Here, Chaos or Community? In March I met with Al Raby and Chicago's other outstanding and committed civil rights leaders to evaluate the progress of our several ongoing programs and to lay plans for the next phase of our drive to end slums.
It was clear to me that city agencies had been inert in upholding their commitment to the open housing pact. I had to express our swelling disillusionment with the foot-dragging negative actions of agencies such as the Chicago Housing Authority, Department of Urban Renewal, and the Commission on Human Relations. It appeared that, for all intents and purposes, the public agencies had reneged on the agreement and had in fact given credence to the apostles of social disorder who proclaimed the housing agreement a sham and a batch of false promises. The city's inaction was not just a rebuff to the Chicago Freedom Movement or a courtship of the white backlash, but also another hot coal on the smoldering fires o1 discontent and despair that are rampant in our black communities, For more than a month during the marches we were told to come to the bargaining table, that compromise and negotiation were the only ways to solve the complex, mufti-layered problems of open occupancy. We came, we sat, we negotiated. We reached the summit and then nearly seven months later we found that much of the ground had been cut out from beneath us.
I could not say that all was lost. There were many decent respected and sincere persons on the Leadership Council who had no broken faith. I pleaded with those responsible and responsive per sons to take a good long hard look at the facts and act now in at effort to regain the spirit of good faith that existed when we began It was not too late, even with the failures of yesterday to renew the effort and take some first steps toward the goals pledged last August.
Open housing had to become more than a meaningless scrap paper. It had to become a reality if this city was to be saved. Our minds and our hearts were open for some real good faith reevaluation and determination to move on, but we also were ready to pose this evil. I had about reached the conclusion that it was going to be almost necessary to engage in massive demonstrations to deal with the problem.
We look back at 1966 as a year of beginnings and of transition. For those of us who came to Chicago from Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, it was a year of vital education. Our organization, carried out in conjunction with the very capable local leadership, experienced fits and starts, setbacks and positive progress. We found ourselves confronted by the hard realities of a social system in many ways more resistant to change than the rural South.
While we were under no illusions about Chicago, in all frankness we found the job greater than even we imagined. And yet on balance we believed that the combination of our organization and the wideranging forces of goodwill in Chicago produced the basis for changes.
I am thinking now of some teenage boys in Chicago. They have nicknames like "Tex," and "Pueblo," and "Goat" and "Teddy." They hail from the Negro slums. Forsaken by society, they once proudly fought and lived for street gangs like the Vice Lords, the Roman Saints, the Rangers. 1 met these boys and heard their stories in discussions we had on some long, cold nights at the slum apartment I rented in the West Side ghetto of Chicago.
I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world. At times 1 shared their despair and felt a hopelessness that these young Americans could ever embrace the concept o f nonviolence as the effective and powerful instrument of social reform. All their lives, boys like this have known life as a madhouse of violence and degradation. Some have never experienced a meaningful family life. Some have police records. Some dropped out of the incredibly bad slum schools, then were deprived of honorable work, then took to the streets.
But this year, they gave us all the gift of nonviolence, which is indeed the gift of love. The Freedom Movement has tried to bring a message to boys like Tex. First we explained that violence can be put down by armed might and police work, that physical force can never solve the underlying social problems. Second, we promised them we could prove, by example, that nonviolence works.
The young slum dweller has good reason to be suspicious of promises. But these young people in Chicago agreed last winter to give nonviolence a test. Then came the very long, very tense, hot summer of 1966, and the first test for many Chicago youngsters: the Freedom March through Mississippi. Gang members went there in carloads.
Those of us who had been in the movement for years were apprehensive about the behavior of the boys. Before the march ended, they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to be called upon to protect women and children on the march, with no other weapon than their own bodies. To them, it would be a strange and possibly nonsensical way to respond to violence.
But they reacted splendidly! They learned in Mississippi, and returned to teach in Chicago, the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force.