It is especially telling that Chicago, Illinois was the site of one of King’s most difficult campaigns. King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were drawn into the struggle in the urban North after the Los Angeles riots of 1965. While the southern movement had been making strides in dismantling segregation and disfranchisement, the problems of black residents in the urban North and West had not gained sustained national attention. At the invitation of activists in Chicago, King moved to that city.
While in Chicago, King and the SCLC hoped to draw attention to poor and inequitable housing conditions, pointing to the fact that although the city did not have formal segregation laws, de facto housing patterns left many of the city’s African Americans in slum conditions. King also worked to stem gang violence, holding workshops on nonviolence. King had a young leader in his organization, Jesse Jackson, spearhead Operation Breadbasket in Chicago: an effort to call on local businesses to hire black employees on an equitable basis.
But King’s efforts in Chicago did not meet with immediate success. Local white residents resisted calls to integrate their neighborhoods. King described one march on the city’s west side, saying that he had “never seen as much hatred and hostility on the part of so many people.” City leaders attempted to defuse protests, coming to agreements to address unfair housing conditions, then later refusing to make good on their promises. The majority of the nation turned a blind eye to the inequities of black urban life, feeling no moral call to transform black life once southern segregation had been dismantled. Instead, many in the national media pointed to theories of black pathology rather than addressing the systemic problems King had decried.
In the long run, King’s turn toward Chicago would make a difference. In the decades following his death, black organizations would use their newfound political leverage to elect black mayors in the cities of Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. However, black communities still suffer from the highest rates of joblessness and King’s vision of stemming poverty and violence has not yet come to pass — as news of the Chicago’s 2012 murder rate make clear. And more than four decades since King’s death, most urban neighborhoods can largely still be described as “black” or “white.”