Chicago Freedom Movement

Fulfilling the Dream

Historical Overview

The Chicago Freedom Movement, the most ambitious civil rights campaign in the North, lasted from mid-1965 to early 1967. It represented the alliance of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). In 1965, SCLC, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., was looking for a site to prove that non-violent direct action could bring about social change outside of the South. Since 1962, the CCCO, headed by Al Raby, had harnessed anger over racial inequality, especially in the public schools, in the city of Chicago to build the most sustained local civil rights movement in the North. The activism of the CCCO pulled SCLC to Chicago as did the work of Bernard LaFayette and James Bevel, two veterans of the southern civil rights movement, on the city’s west side.

The Chicago Freedom Movement declared its intention to end slums in the city. It organized tenants unions, assumed control of a slum tenement, founded action groups like Operation Breadbasket, and rallied black and white Chicagoans to support its goals. In the early summer of 1966, it focused its attention on housing discrimination. By late July it was staging regular marches into all-white neighborhoods on the city’s southwest and northwest sides. The hostile response of white residents and the determination of civil rights activists to continue to crusade for open housing alarmed City Hall and attracted the attention of the national press. In mid-August, high-level negotiations began between city leaders, movement activists, and representatives of the Chicago Real Estate Board. On August 26, after the Chicago Freedom Movement had declared that it would march into Cicero, site of a fierce race riot in 1951, an agreement, consisting of positive steps to open up housing opportunities in metropolitan Chicago, was reached.

The Summit Agreement was the culmination of months of organizing and direct action. It did not, however, satisfy all activists some of whom, in early September 1966, marched on Cicero. Furthermore, after the open-housing marches, the Chicago Freedom Movement lost its focus and momentum. By early 1967, Martin Luther King and SCLC had decided to train their energies on other targets, thus marking the end of this ambitious campaign.

Draft—JRR, 3/4/05

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