Friday, November 27, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Apartment


In April, 1963, Martin Luther King wrote in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" that
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
In January, 1966, Dr. King brought civil disobedience to Chicago to support "open housing" and the end of neighborhood segregation in the city. After years of marches through Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, the "Chicago Freedom" movement was the first major action of the civil rights movement in the north.

During the spring and summer of 1966, Dr. King lived three days a week in a slum apartment on this site, at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. "You can't really get close to the poor without living and being here with them," he said.

Dr. King moved in on January 26, 1966, and began paying $90 per month in rent to the landlord, Alvin Shavin & Associates. The building was a three floor walk-up with six flats, and Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, lived on the third floor.

Aides to King had selected the apartment with the goal of obtaining a home in what they called a "typical ghetto apartment". The fact that the ultimate tenant would be the world-famous civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner was kept secret from the landlord, as well as from the press, in order to avoid either an attempt to keep King out of the building, or, contrarily, any attempt by the landlord to clean up the building in order to avoid embarrassment.

In fact, the landlord did clean up the apartment substantially before he moved in, though it remained very dreary. The Tribune described it:
From the green painted entranceway of Dr. King's new home, up the three flights of bare wood stairs, to the partment on the right side of the third floor landing, poverty is everywhere.

If Dr. King toured his new home yesterday he could hardly be impressed. Tho it was freshly painted, there seemed to have been little pains taken to make it comfortable. In the white painted living room, including the fake fireplace, there was only one sofa. A chair and small table were nearby. In the large bedroom, painted gray, there is a new Hollywood-type bed. An adjoining bedroom, also painted gray, has a similar bed as well as a folding bed which could be stored in a closet. The yellow-painted kitchen contained only a sink. There was no stove or refrigerator. The unwashed kitchen windows looked out over a row of roof tops, cluttered with debris. Next to the kitchen is a bathroom. The tiled floor is cracked and seemed to be symbolic of the apartment's roundown condition. Across from the washbowl is bathtub, dirty and stained with age.

Mrs. King, dressed in a Persian lamb coat with mink-trimmed collar, admited she had some trepidation about living in the apartment: "I hear the accommodations are
not the best."

(Pictured: Dr. Martin Luther King and wife (center window) waving from their apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin.)
Dr. King's purpose in Chicago was primarily to lead a movement for "open housing". Although a 1948 Supreme Court decision had ruled that neighborhood restrictive covenants were unenforceable, Chicago and many other cities remained de facto segregated through social stigma and intimidation. Blacks therefore faced serious difficulties in moving out of slum conditions like those in North Lawndale, where King's apartment lay.
Immediately after moving in, Dr. King announced a plan to lead rent strikes against "slumlords" like Shavin and Associates, "which have created infamous slum conditions directly responsible for the involuntary enslavement of millions of black men, women, and children. Our primary objective will be to bring about the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums." King planned to organize tenants into a "union" of sorts, and use collective bargaining to lower rents and force improvements in substandard housing. Returning to his theme of higher law, King told reporters, "It may be necessary to engage in acts of civil disobedience in order to call attention to specific problems. Often an individual has to break a particular law to obey a higher law, that of brotherhood and justice."
(Pictured: Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, in their Chicago apartment)
It is unclear, however, how an attack on landlords in Black neighborhoods would solve the problem of discrimination in housing in white neighborhoods. If anything, the use of political force to reduce rents could have the primary effect of reducing the supply of cheap housing and minimizing the incentive of landlords to improve property in order to achieve higher rent.
King's initial tactics along these lines also backfired politically. His first target was a decaying brownstone at 1321 S. Homan, a few blocks from his own fetid apartment. On February 23, 1966, King and twenty members of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced they were taking over the building, which was in a serious state of delinquency with city codes, as a "trusteeship". Tenants, he announced, would pay their rents to the SCLC instead of to the landlord, and their rents would be used to improve the building.
Naturally, the landlord was none too happy about the scheme. It turned out that he was no slimu Leona Helmsley-type character, but instead an elderly, debilitated man, who himself had few means of support. When told about King's actions, the property owner, 81-year old John Bender, from his wheelchair, told reporters that the building was a "white elephant," and that he hadn't seen a cent from it in the years he owned it. In fact, he said, he had lost $25,000 in the investment, and he would be more than happy to give it to Dr. King or anyone else, provided they simply pay the $150 a month mortgage.
Public opinion swung towards Bender. King's actions were a violation of Bender's property rights, and were illegal -- at least depending on one's definition of law. "I won't say that it is illegal, but I would call it supra-legal. The moral question is far more important than the legal one," said King.
But the courts didn't agree. In April, 1966, Chancery court issued an injunction against the SCLC and handed the property back to Bender, who promptly died within the month. The property fell into the hands of a court-appointed receiver, who did little about the code violations. The building still stands, more than 40 years later, as dilapidated as ever.
Open housing wasn't King's only goal during his time in Chicago. In a June rally at Soldier Field, King declared a number of others: school desegregation in Chicago, a city income tax, a $2/hr minimum wage, Black history courses in all public schools, and an expansion of the elevated trains to O'Hare airport and the Northwest side (in order to allow Blacks to reach these primarily-White neighborhoods). The Soldier Field rally was also notable for the appearance of a number of Chicago street gangs, including the Blackstone Rangers. The Rangers unfurled a huge banner that read "Black Power", the slogan of the more radical element in the civil rights movement, and one that King was uncomfortable with.
Dr. King's relationship with street gangs in Chicago was one of wary acceptance. After a perceived snub during the Soldier Field rally, the Conservative Vice Lords, who were also in attendance, stood up and walked out, and were followed by the Rangers and another major gang, the Gangster Disciples. King's apartment was just a block away from CVL, Inc. headquarters on 16th street, so it may have been a desire for peace that lead him to invite CVL leadership to a meeting a few weeks later at his apartment. He told them that SCLC needed help from gang members, needed them to be his "troops" on the ground, and street gang members were a part of King's efforts in Chicago throughout that summer, despite the discomfort they inspired in many SCLC members. King was probably right; if he were to lose the support of street gangs, who controlled the streets in many Black neighborhoods, he would likely lose the support of Blacks in the city generally.
While King's "trusteeship" takeovers of slum dwellings were generally unproductive, his marches against discriminatory real estate agents were far more successful. In July and August, 1966, the SCLC led marches through all-White neighborhoods on the Southwest side, including Gage Park, Bogan, and Evergreen Park. These events invariably turned violent. In one August march, crowds of white residents blocked the marchers path along Kedzie Ave., between 63rd and Marquette Rd. Dr. King arrived on the scene and, as he got out of his car, was pelted on the back of the neck with a rock. Falling to the ground, he steadied himself, saying "I have to do this -- to expose myself -- to bring this hate into the open. I have seen many demonstrations in the south but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today."
For its part, the Chicago Tribune was openly hostile to Dr. King and his efforts throughout his time in the city. In one particularly inflammatory editorial, the paper wrote
These "rights" leaders and the foggy clergymen who abet them on are not heroes. For all their pious protestations of nonviolence, they are working hand in glove with the criminal element to create confusion and turbulence and to compound the danger to Chicagoans. They can no longer even pretend to be ignorant of this link. Chicago has already paid too high a price for this deliberate campaign of sabotage. Causing violence to achieve political ends is criminal syndicalism, a statutory crime in many states. There are other laws, in addition, against inciting violence. If the marchers keep up their sabotage, it will be time to indict the whole lot of them.
Mayor Daley took a more nuanced approach. While publicly respecting Dr. King's efforts, he also worked to undermine them by emphasizing the city's own efforts to improve conditions in Black neighborhoods, implicitly implying King's work was unnecessary. Nevertheless, Daley too was troubled by the increasing violence associated with the marches on the Southwest side. When King announced the next target would be suburban Cicero, elements in various White Power groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, made it clear that they would confront and oppose any civil rights march in the city.
Daley and others pleaded with Dr. King to cancel the march in Cicero, to no avail. Finally, just a few days before the event, a compromise was achieved. Mayor Daley, the Chicago Real Estate Board, and a number of other city leaders signed a statement agreeing to the principles of open housing, and promising to end "steering" practices, by which Black residents were discouraged from purchasing property in white neighborhoods. In return, King postponed the march in Cicero indefinitely. (More radical elements were not dissuaded, however, and a smaller march did take place in Cicero in September, and in fact, it was marked by violence).
Having apparently brought the city on board with the principles of open housing, Dr. King declared victory in Chicago, and moved on to new challenges, leaving an affiliate, Jesse Jackson, to continue the SCLC's operations in the city under the banner of Operation Breadbasket.

When King was assassinated in April, 1968, riots erupted on the West and South sides of Chicago, with burning and looting throughout these neighborhoods. One of the buildings burned in the riots was the one where King had lived at 1550 S. Hamlin. The building survived, however, at least to some degree, and remained a burn-out for another decade. It was demolished in 1979.
The property remained an empty lot for the next thirty years. In spring, 2009, developers announced plans to build a $17 million complex called the "Dr. King Legacy Apartments," including commercial space and an "exhibition center". A sign was planted indicating the complex would break ground in fall, 2009. As of November, 2009, there is no sign of any construction, and the sign is gone.

8 comments:

Rob Latham said...

Todd, you likely came across this in your research, but "American Pharaoh" by ohen and taylor contains a good treatment of the daley-king interactions during his time in chicago.

Kendall said...

Rob,

Thanks for the tip! I ordered the book on Amazon today.

BACKPACKBOOGIE said...

Yeah that site is next to BBR that School is William Penn i attended that school(thats seen in photo) when i was a Tike. I alived Across 16th Street 3 blocks down . That lot when i was growing up was a Grocery store that Burned down.

Lawdale Christian Development Corporation said...

The Dr. King Legacy Apartments will have it's ribbon cutting ceremony on Monday, April 4, 2011 at 1550 S. Hamlin starting at 11 am. All are welcome. Come celebrate the Dream!!!!

Sildenafil said...

We can never know what King would have said about these developments, but we should remember that he was far more than a dreamer—he was a fighter—and the changes he fought for posed a serious challenge to American capitalism.

Rogger Mcloud said...

I consider that is really great to conserv such patrimony, I mean this should be a responsibility of all the citizens of the world to protect the patrimony. Not just in the US, all over the world.

I work with arquitecture and furnished apartments buenos aires, but I nkow a lot of people in Buenos Aires that work with this stuff. I am talking about conservation of the cultural patrimony.

Paul Norrington said...

Yes, Dr King's efforts in the north had mixed results. But he was organizing from the ground up. There was little time to shape a strategy. Two years later, he was dead and the movement died with him. What do we do going forward? I say that if President Obama builds his presidential library and museum in the same neighborhood that Dr King tried to use, it would prove to make a long lasting and significant difference in poor communities across America.

Paul said...

Amazing article. But so many pieces on this blog are fantastic. I love how well you know the city... where do you research these? They are incredible.