Today marks the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., and as in years past, most celebrations of his legacy are bound to dwell on his victories bringing change to the Jim Crow south. But Northwestern University’s Block Films takes a different tack tonight by exploring one of King’s most notable defeats. Seth McClellan’s documentary King in Chicago: The Chicago Freedom Movement, screening at 6:30 PM at the Block Museum of Art with the director in attendance, revisits the civil rights leader’s frustrating, ultimately unsuccessful 1966 attempt to eradicate housing discrimination in Chicago, where he was brushed back by white rage and smoothly outflanked by Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“In the south, the police beat you up,” remembers James Bevel, a veteran of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference interviewed for the documentary. “In Chicago, the people beat you up.” McClellan touches on the protesters’ nonviolent march into Gage Park, where they were besieged by angry whites and King got hit in the head with a rock. But the documentary also explains how Chicago marked a sea change in King’s crusade: after addressing such concrete matters as the right to vote and access to schools and public places, he now turned his attention to the more intractable urban issues of housing, education, and poverty.
At the same time, King hadn’t figured on the finesse of the city’s Democratic mayor and real estate interests. When he arrived in town in January 1966, he rented an apartment in North Lawndale for himself and his family, hoping to publicize the appalling condition of housing on the south and west sides. But as the documentary reports, the landlord was wise to him and sent in an eight-man crew to renovate the apartment before King arrived. The incident turned out to be a forerunner for what happened later in the year when King agreed to a summit meeting with Daley and other civic and business leaders that would address the issues of jobs, housing, and education. The resulting agreement brought triumphant headlines, but it wasn’t enforceable by law and the City Council ignored it.
McClellan draws on a wealth of interviews with members of the SCLC (Bevel, Jesse Jackson, Dorothy Tillman) and its partner organization here in town, the Chicago Freedom Movement (Billy Hollins, Jerry Herman, Herman Jenkins, Carolyn A. Black). Additional perspective comes from Paul Green of Roosevelt University, Reverend William Briggs of Warren Avenue Church, and the recently notorious Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church. Many of them express their anguish when, inevitably, McClellan turns to King’s assassination in Memphis a year and a half after he left Chicago to launch the Poor People’s Campaign. But the documentary also makes an effort to assess King’s unfinished business 40 years after his death. Notes SCLC veteran Al Sampson, “In every major city you go into now, there is this land grab on one side, and ‘What are we gonna do with poor people?’ on the other side.”