Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

How Mayor Daley Outfoxed Martin Luther King

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    NEWSLETTERS

    During the Civil Rights Movement, black leaders had a saying: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close you get, as long as you don’t get too high. In the North, he doesn’t care how high you get, as long as you don’t get too close.”

    When Martin Luther King came to Chicago in 1966, he didn’t come to march for voting rights. Blacks had been able to vote in Illinois for nearly 100 years and had their own aldermen, legislators and congressmen. He came for housing rights. Chicago was known as the most segregated city in America, with blacks confined to ghettos on the South and West sides.

    King never made much progress in Chicago. Mayor Richard J. Daley, father of Richard M. Daley, wanted to keep the city segregated, because it guaranteed that middle-class whites didn’t flee to the suburbs. Rep. William Dawson, the black overlord of the South Side, also wanted to keep the city segregated, because the ghetto guaranteed him a captive political base. The Daley-controlled black aldermen known as the “Silent Six” regularly voted against open housing ordinances. As Bill and Lori Granger put it in Lords of the Last Machine, “Why let the chickens out of the coop?”

    Still, King led marches through the all-white neighborhoods of Gage Park and Marquette Park, where he was greeted by Confederate-flag waving whites chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!” He was hit on the head by a rock, causing him to fall to the ground.

    “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate,” King said afterward.

    Unlike Southern politicians, Daley ordered his police to stop the violence -- but he also went to court for an injunction limiting the size and the hours of the marches. When he finally sat down to negotiate with King, they came up with an agreement in which Daley promised, among other things, to lobby for more open-housing legislation and build scattered-site housing projects. King left town, declaring victory. Shortly after his departure, Daley declared that summit had produced nothing but an unenforceable “gentlemen’s agreement.”

    King was furious. As his aide Ralph Abernathy was later to write, “Richard Daley was a fox, too smart for us.”

    As long as Daley was mayor, Chicago remained the most segregated city in America. In many parts of town, it still. On his home turf in the South, King defeated Bull Connor, George Wallace, Lester Maddox, the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils. But in Chicago, he couldn’t outfox Mayor Daley.