Tuesday, January 26, 2016

1550 S. Hamlin

On January 26, 1966, fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King moved into an apartment on the west side of Chicago. As a part of the "Campaign to end slums", Dr. King came here to listen and learn, working to improve the lives of the poor people of this city, both socially and economically. He also came to help integrate Chicago, working to end the housing covenants of the time that restricted black people from living wherever they pleased in the city. That apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin in the neighborhood of North Lawndale would be King's home address for almost one year.

During that year, Dr. King and his associates marched in the (at the time), all white communities of Gage Park, Cicero and Marquette Park, where a brick thrown presumably by an unappreciative resident of that community hit him square in the head. Of that experience, Dr. King said:
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.
Dr. King was more measured in his feelings about this city in a radio interview on the black radio station WVON, when a listener asked him if he really felt Chicago was worse than any other city he had visited. You can listen to his response here in an excellent report filed this morning by Linda Lutton of Chicago's public radio outlet, WBEZ.

The WBEZ piece takes pains to differentiate the larger than life, carved in stone, Nobel Laureate hero whom we celebrate each year on his birthday by playing soundbites of his I Have a Dream speech, from the Martin King who lived in Lawndale in 1966. The Chicago King was no dreamer, here he was nothing short of a revolutionary bent on changing the very fabric of American Society from the ground up. In the name of ending poverty, Dr. King advocated collective bargaining not only for workers, but also for tenants and welfare recipients, a 60 percent increase in the minimum wage, and a guaranteed minimum income for all.

The Linda Lutton piece quotes King as saying in Chicago:

“If there is to be genuine equality, there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power."

Fifty years later in a much more conservative time, it's hard to see King's ideas for the elimination of poverty gaining much steam. Clearly, Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963 proclaiming his dream is a much more palatable symbol for most Americans than the real man, shirtsleeves rolled up, working in one of the bleakest neighborhoods in the country, and advocating the kind of radical change that would make even Bernie Sanders uncomfortable.

For me the saddest part of the piece is an interview with Irene Powell, an elderly woman who still lives across the street from 1550 S. Hamlin as she did nearly a lifetime ago when Dr. King called that address home. Things haven't gotten much better since his visit fifty years ago, in fact Lutton ironically describes the time when Martin Luther King lived there as the neighborhood's "good years."

Two years after he lived on south Hamlin Street, Martin Luther King was assassinated and much of the neighborhood burned to the ground. The scars still exist today in the form of entire blocks still vacant after all these years.

It's impossible to say what might have happened had Dr. King been allowed to live a full life. As I mentioned in a previous post, his death and the urban riots that ensued, hardened the hearts of many black people who no longer saw non-violence as a viable solution to poverty and racism, and those of white people sympathetic to the cause, who fled major cities in droves out of fear for their personal safety.

Despite the fact that we live in a completely different world than the one we lived in fifty years ago, best illustrated by the man who currently resides in the White House, race continues to be a defining and polarizing issue in our country.

Perhaps the moral authority and leadership of an elderly Dr. King would have made a significant difference in the way white and black people live together in this country. Perhaps not.

Sadly, we'll never know.

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