From our archives: ‘Drive to end slums’

In 1966, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. extended his mission beyond the South – pushing for progress in the North starting in Chicago. Dr. King penned this piece for the Monitor on March 14, 1967, making his case for open housing to end segregation and overcrowding. “Slums and slumism,” he writes, is “the end product of domestic colonialism.” Part of a 2019 archival project on King.

The American civil-rights movement has thrust northward into the big cities. It has produced challenging confrontations over the past year. To give a clearer understanding of what those challenges can mean to a city, The Christian Science Monitor asked for two ‘inside’ assessments from Chicago. The following, by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., is the first.

Midsummer of 1966 saw Northern racism spread through the streets of Chicago as thousands of Negro and white marchers began their demonstrations for open housing.

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 hatecall, punctuated by obscenities – most frequently directed at Roman Catholic priests and nuns among the marchers,

The episode spread over a two-month period, was the most visible and most memorable in the new Northern thrust of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Our first attack on urban segregation shamed and shocked the nation by exposing a hated and brutality identified only with officialdom in Selma and Birmingham in earlier years.

Drives in those Southern cities resulted in major national legislation. The Chicago marches were concluded by a broad and sweeping agreement reached between civil-rights leaders and a wide spectrum of city agencies, real-estate dealers, religious leaders, and a wide spectrum of city agencies, real-estate dealers, religious leaders, and top business and labor figures. Each vowed at the “summit” meeting a specific program of action aimed at creating a free housing market in the metropolitan area.

Representative group formed

A permanent organization manned by representatives of all these groups was established to oversee the followthrough on the agreement. While that organization is only now gearing up for the task, there is some evidence that the pact’s good faith will be upheld.

This was hailed in national magazines as our “victory in the North” Yet it is only one link in a chain of activities aimed at a broader goal than open occupancy. 

When we first came here to join forces with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, Chicago’s civil-rights coalition, we outlined an all-out 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 overwhelming problem, we established a series of concurrent projects aimed at each facet.

Housing itself is a complex, many-layered issue, demanding many approaches. One of its most obvious inequities is residential segregation and overcrowding. Thus, the drive for open housing is aimed both at ending separatism and at providing the escape valve for overcrowded ghettos.

At the same time, Negro neighborhoods must be made more habitable for those who remain. Two significant programs were developed to this end.

Perhaps the most revolutionary is the organization of tenant unions, modeled after labor organizations, which become the collective-bargaining agents between landlord and resident.

Unions formed

This program has had remarkable success. In less than a year, unions were formed in three of the city’s worst slum and ghetto areas. Organized with the help of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department, these unions represent more than 10,000 slum dwellers. Through more than a dozen collective-bargaining contracts gained by rent strike and negotiation, major property owners and management firms now are obliged to bring approximately 2,000 dwelling units up to code standards. The collective-bargaining contracts also include such measures as rent freezes and stabilization, daily janitorial and sanitation services, and immediate repairs of facilities that jeopardize health and safety.

Many observers expect that the tenant-union movement will emerge as a major new force on the national scene, affecting not only slum dwellers but persons of all classes and colors who rent homes or apartments under standard leases.

Those leases, typified by Chicago’s, are fundamentally the products of a feudal society’s relationship  between tenant and landlord. 

Apartments rehabilitated

Another phase of the housing thrust concerns neighborhood rehabilitation. The Chicago Freedom Movement, in an important pilot project, was recently granted $4,000,000 in low-cost, FHA-insured loan funds. Those will be used to acquire and rehabilitate some 500 family-sized apartments in three slum areas.

The unique aspect of this program lies in the fact that the rehabilitated buildings will be turned over to housing cooperatives organized in each of the neighborhoods. The residents therefore gain their much-needed voice in management and administration of the properties. It is through such moves that we hope to break the cycle of defeatism and psychological servitude that mark the mentality of slumism, achieving human as well as housing renewal.

On yet another housing front we are trying to break the local and national pattern of using urban renewal as a tool for Negro removal.

To date, virtually all urban-renewal programs have uprooted and resegregated Negroes for the benefit of private interests.

A variation on this theme is under way in Chicago’s Englewood area, where some 600 basically sound, Negro-owned and occupied dwellings are to be destroyed to create a shopping mall and a series of new parking lots for the local business district. This was planned without concern for the total needs of the community, which desperately requires new health, cultural, and recreational facilities.

Patronage withdrawn

Therefore, a patronage withdrawal has begun in the area in an effort to persuade the businessmen to halt further acquisition until the case is settled in court. If this operation is successful, it will be a major stride toward the original high goals of urban-renewal legislation. It will help assure that future programs are undertaken for the people and with the people, and to serve the total community needs rather than the private interests.

Patronage withdrawal is a key tool in our most spectacularly successful program, Operation Breadbasket. The program, organized by an interracial group of ministers, is aimed at obtaining employment and job upgrading for Negroes.

The philosophical undergirding of Operation Breadbasket rests in the belief that many retail businesses and consumer-foods industries deplete 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 select a target industry then obtain the employment statistics of individual companies within it. If the proportion of Negro employees is unsatisfactory or if they are confined to the menial jobs, the company is approached to negotiate a more equitable employment practice. Leverage is applied where necessary through selective buying campaigns organized by the clergymen through their congregations and through the movement.

First target was the milk industry, Here, five companies, representing nearly 80 percent of the city’s retail dairy business, were confronted. Of these, three negotiated immediately and two did so only after a patronage-withdrawal campaign.

Resulting was a total of 224 new jobs for Negroes on all levels of the dairies’ operations.

Next came the soft-drink industry, where the three major local bottlers were approached. Following a similar pattern, an additional 130 new jobs were opened.

Operation Breadbasket then moved on the retail supermarket chains and banks.

556 Negroes hired

Thus far, two major chains owning some 40 stores within the Negro community have agreed to hire 556 Negro employees in various capacities, to carry products of Negro-owned firms, and to transfer their funds into the integrated banks.

The move has fulfilled a major need, that of building the Negro community financially at several levels: gaining new employment, strengthening existing Negro businesses, and expanding operations in banking and higher finance.

In just eight months of operation, Breadbasket has produced 900 new jobs and added an estimated $6,000,000 per year in new income to the community. While even this is microscopic in the larger context of needs, its further importance lies in its explosion of several myths about fair employment practices.

Too often companies that claim to be committed to open hiring policies will decry the lack of “qualified” help when confronted with their low percentage of Negro employees.

Another excuse for inadequate representation has been the claim that the affected unions would block the door to large numbers of new Negroes.

Both of these, in fact, have proven false. “Qualified” Negroes were found or trained, and no union problems emerged when companies, through persuasion or pressure, saw the true social and financial value of genuine fair hiring.

But at the root of the problem of preparing Negroes for employment and functioning at all levels of society lies the poor education given to children in the public schools. Chicago’s school system, typical of most large cities, has systematically deprived youngsters of learning through a deliberate pattern of segregation and inadequate education.

Little change seen

The city’s school problems received nationwide attention during the protests and boycotts of 1963-1965, reaching a peak when the federal government briefly cut off funds to the system in response to charges that it violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A full investigation, released early in January corroborated the charges of racial bias. Superintendent Benjamin C. Willis was the pillar of policies and administration that produced and perpetuated this situation. In 1966, after many years of protest, he resigned ahead of his scheduled retirement date.

At this juncture we must fairly say that only the climate has improved. Little has been done in recent months to effect serious change. While the public posture of the school administration is somewhat encouraging, new schools slated to be built in 1967 are in segregated areas. But the school board must begin to show progress by April in order to satisfy the federal government. We will work with it, if called, to develop a positive desegregation program. 

This is the immediate prospect for 1967 as we look back at 1966 as a year of beginnings and of transition.

For those of us who came here 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 who knew from limited experiences and from the voices of others the nature of Northern urban problems, found ourselves confronted by the hard realities of a social system in many ways more resistant to change than the rural South.

Action accelerated

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 believe that the combination of our organization and the wide-ranging forces of goodwill in Chicago has produced the basis for change.

The programs initiated during the year have yet to make a deep social impact, but they clearly have been felt.

Government here has moved quickly to catch up with some of the surface problems. Such as refuse collection, pest control, and building inspection.

The clergy, on a broader and deeper level than ever before, has accelerated the pace of its social action.

Major labor organizations joined forces with the civil-rights movement in a direct partnership, again continuing a direction begun with the birth of the contemporary civil-rights movement.

Yet we have touched the lives of only a relative few of the scores of thousands of Negroes who live in “the other Chicago,” an impoverished island amid a vast sea of affluence. Our several significant victories have only demonstrated the possibilities of progress toward the abolition or urban poverty and segregation. 

Concrete progress must be achieved this year because we are in reality racing against an ignited fuse.

Download the original PDF of this article here. 

© 1967 The Christian Science Monitor. Reprinted with permission. Image retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers produced by ProQuest CSA LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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