- The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the Northed. by Mary Lou Finley, Bernard Lafayette Jr., James R. Ralph Jr., and Pam Smith
In January 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) spearheaded a nonviolent direct-action campaign in Chicago alongside a local umbrella group, the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). Targeting slum conditions in the city's black neighborhoods and the racially discriminatory practices of [End Page 473]local housing officials and realtors, the SCLC, the CCCO, and others in the broader Chicago Freedom Movement (CFM) conducted a series of marches through lily-white neighborhoods that met with fierce, and often violent, resistance. The deeply hostile reaction of white Chicagoans to calls for open housing laid bare the extent of white racism and institutional bias in the North for all to see. Dismayed with the disruption and controversy caused by their marches, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley eventually agreed to negotiate with King and CFM leaders. The so-called Summit Agreement reached in late August 1966 brought an end to the CFM's direct-action campaign but secured only limited reforms and weak commitments from city officials and local real estate representatives to eradicate discriminatory housing practices.
Contemporary critics labeled the campaign a failure and called it a defeat for King, the SCLC, and the CFM—a judgment echoed by many historians over the last half century. This book, however, succeeds in overturning that analysis. Examining the "deep impact" of the CFM's campaign, it makes a compelling case that, in the longer term, the campaign and its adherents made a real difference in the city and beyond (p. 3). Divided into five parts, the book begins with two sections that together historicize the CFM's housing campaign by revealing its roots in earlier black protest and activism in the city and illuminate the lived experience of organizing in the urban North by drawing heavily on firsthand accounts from a range of movement participants. The remaining three parts trace the impact and programmatic legacies of CFM activism in a number of different areas, including the passage of landmark fair housing and fair lending legislation at both the local and national levels, the development of tenants' rights activism in the city and beyond, and the growth of independent black political power in Chicago from the 1980s up to the present day. Overall, as the authors suggest, the book makes clear that "the ripples spreading out from the Chicago Freedom Movement changed Chicago and the nation" (p. 4).
In the process this book makes a valuable contribution to civil rights historiography in several respects. First, by placing Chicago—not popularly recognized as an important site of civil rights activism—firmly within a "long civil rights movement" framework, the collection helps further undermine traditional civil rights narratives that tend to focus only on events below the Mason-Dixon Line and bring the curtain down on the nonviolent movement after the SCLC s direct-action campaign in Selma, Alabama, in May 1965 (p. 100). Second, although King is an important focus, the book really does more to underline the limits of his role. Innovatively combining the voices of both activists and scholars, the book highlights the extent to which the CFM was a broad, diverse, and, to a degree, multiracial and interfaith grassroots effort that relied on the support and industry of a range of different organizations and people from communities across the city—and that was not free of its own internal divisions, pressures, and problems (especially concerning gender). Finally, by taking the longer view of the CFM's short-lived housing campaign, this book also reminds us that progress is often slow and [End Page 474]incremental, and it forces us to reconsider how...