Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Chicago Freedom Movement and the CBL

With the recent 50th anniversary for the March on Washington, I’d like to post about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relation to contract selling and the Contract Buyers League.  In 1966, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) brought their civil rights campaign north to Chicago.  With the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), a local group led by Al Raby, they began the Chicago Freedom Movement.  The movement was dedicated to ending housing discrimination in Chicago and focused on ending slums in the city.  They chose to focus on North Lawndale, and King even moved his family into an apartment at 1550 S Hamlin. John McKnight,  who was the Midwest Director of the US Civil Rights Commission (1965-1969), describes how he worked with Jim Bevel to try and persuade Dr. King to fight against contract selling, and ultimately the explanation of why they did not take on this fight:

...Bevel was the first person who was a real activist who seemed really interested in [contract selling].  ...And so I got him all set up to go to the next staff meeting and make a presentation about this whole thing.  And he did that, I mean I didn’t go, I wasn’t in their inner circle.  He came back and he said to me, it didn’t work.  And I said, why do you think that is.  He said, well, the other idea that we’re looking at is creating tenants unions.  He said, and the argument that won the day was tenants unions because if people have contracts they are at least well enough off to own property.  But the tenants weren’t, they were totally bereft of any resources.2

The Chicago Freedom Movement went on to organize tenants unions and lead marches into all-white neighborhoods where they were often met with violent responses.  They held a freedom rally at Soldier Field, and King posted a list of demands for open housing on the doors of City Hall that would have benefited contract buyers as well.  Here is a link to a collection of Tribune photos of King’s time in Chicago.

King speaking at Soldier Field rally (Tribune)
John McKnight had learned about contract selling a decade earlier from attending public meetings with Mark Satter.  His hopes of King and the SCLC fighting against contract selling were dashed, but something else was going on at the same time.  There was a new conservative bishop in Chicago, who didn’t want the church involved with the civil rights movement.  Monsignior Jack Egan was the spearhead of almost all church involvement in these activities.  So the bishop exiled Egan to a declining parish in North Lawndale, Presentation Parish.3

1 "Chicago Freedom Movement, 1966"
2 Interview with John McKnight, Nov. 7, 2012.
3 Frisbie. "An Alley in Chicago". Ch. 16.