Chicago Freedom Movement

Fulfilling the Dream

Richard J. Daley


Richard J. Daley was the extremely powerful Democratic mayor of Chicago who was determined to control the Chicago Freedom Movement before it unlocked his political machine’s grip on the city. Daley was born in a working class neighborhood of Chicago, and worked his way through night school at DePaul University, where he obtained a law degree in 1934. Daley quickly rose through the political ranks, first as a state representative, then senator, and other state positions. He became the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee in 1953 and was elected mayor in 1955.

A powerful mayor and party chief, Daley was re-elected every four years for two decades, until his death. He mastered a patronage system, making use of city employees to bring out the vote and re-elect him. During his term as mayor, Daley was committed to strengthening Chicago’s downtown. He oversaw the construction of several large skyscrapers including Sears tower, the country’s tallest building. Daley was known as an expert negotiator, ending more than twenty strikes through negotiation, a tactic he would attempt to use during the Chicago Freedom Movement.

Daley felt threatened by the prospect of a civil rights movement in Chicago, and reacted by altering city policy to appease the demands of the movement before they arrived. Daley publicized his own campaign to end slums, and in early 1966 city officials stepped up their efforts against slumlords and dilapidated housing. By July of 1966, Daley’s regime had “demolished 1,409 abandoned buildings and had brought 9,226 other buildings containing 102,847 dwelling units into compliance with city housing codes.” [Ralph 86]

The open-housing marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other movement organizers, and the white response to them, greatly worried Mayor Daley on a personal level. On August 9, 1966, he announced that he would “meet with anyone and do anything to prevent what is happening to our city.” [Ralph 130] When protesters continued to march through white areas and demand open housing, eliciting a violent response from white communities, Daley decided to seek an injunction against the marchers in order to force them to limit their marches. “It is to protect the lives; and property of all the people, Negroes and whites, that we have asked the court not to stop but to regulate to a reasonable degree the street demonstrations,” he said. He stressed that he asked for injunction because he was “faced with the dilemma of balancing right. . .” On one hand,” the mayor explained, “there was the constitutional right of petition, and on the other the constitutional right of safety of person.” [Newspaper article]

He successfully convinced movement leaders to negotiate with him and the Chicago business community as an alternative to protesting in the streets. After two weeks of negotiations, all parties agreed on terms that would end the open-housing marches. Some civil rights activists ignored the summit agreement and marched into Cicero in September 1966, but the settlement marked an end to the open-housing campaign of the Chicago Freedom movement.

Two years later, Chicago was thrown into turmoil by the Democratic National Convention. The city’s police suppression of anti-war protesters exposed the vast power of Daley’s regime. Despite national criticism, Daley’s political popularity in Chicago remained strong.

While his stance on the Chicago Freedom Movement cannot be considered exemplary, he was quick to offer marchers police protection, and to work with them to settle their demands. King once asserted, “I’m not leading any campaign against Mayor Daley – I’m leading a campaign against the slums.” Daley’s subsequent re-election as mayor and continuing tributes to his mayoralty reveal that neither the Chicago Freedom Movement nor the Democratic National Convention episode permanently tarnished his reputation as a fair and effective mayor.


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