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Chicago Campaign

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January 7, 1966 to August 26, 1966

Dr. King and other on stage at Chicago Freedom Festival
Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

On 7 January 1966, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) announced plans for the Chicago Freedom Movement, a campaign that marked the expansion of their civil rights activities from the South to northern cities. King believed that “the moral force of SCLC’s nonviolent movement philosophy was needed to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment” (King, 18 March 1966). King and his family moved to one such Chicago slum at the end of January so that he could be closer to the movement. 

Groundwork for the Chicago Campaign began in the summer of 1965. In July, Chicago civil rights groups invited King to lead a demonstration against de facto segregation in education, housing, and employment. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), convened by Chicago activist Albert Raby, subsequently asked SCLC to join them in a major nonviolent campaign geared specifically at achieving fair housing practices. King believed that turning SCLC’s attention to the North made sense: “In the South, we always had segregationists to help make issues clear.… This ghetto Negro has been invisible so long and has become visible through violence” (Cotton, 26–28 August 1965). Indeed, after riots in Watts, Los Angeles, in August 1965, it seemed crucial to demonstrate how nonviolent methods could address the complex economic exploitation of African Americans in the North. 

CCCO had already organized mass nonviolent protests in the city and was eager to engage in further action. In addition to tapping into this ready-made movement, Chicago politics made the city a good choice for a northern campaign. Mayor Richard Daley had a high degree of personal power and was in a position to directly mandate changes to a variety of racist practices. In addition to targeting racial discrimination in housing, SCLC launched Operation Breadbasket, a project under the leadership of Jesse Jackson, aimed at abolishing racist hiring practices by companies working in African American neighborhoods. 

The campaigns had gained momentum through demonstrations and marches, when race riots erupted on Chicago’s West Side in July 1966. During a march through an all-white neighborhood on 5 August, black demonstrators were met with racially fueled hostility. Bottles and bricks were thrown at them, and King was struck by a rock. Afterward he noted: “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 Is Felled by Rock”). 

Throughout the summer, King faced the organizational challenges of mobilizing Chicago’s diverse African American community, cautioning against further violence and working to counter the mounting resistance of working-class whites who feared the impact of open housing on their neighborhoods. King observed, “Many whites who oppose open housing would deny that they are racists. They turn to sociological arguments … [without realizing] that criminal responses are environmental, not racial” (King, 118–119). 

By late August, Mayor Daley was eager to find a way to end the demonstrations. After negotiating with King and various housing boards, a summit agreement was announced in which the Chicago Housing Authority promised to build public housing with limited height requirements, and the Mortgage Bankers Association agreed to make mortgages available regardless of race. Although King called the agreement “the most significant program ever conceived to make open housing a reality,” he recognized that it was only “the first step in a 1,000-mile journey” (King, 26 August 1966; Halvorsen, “Cancel Rights Marches”). 

Following the summit agreement, some SCLC staff stayed behind to assist in housing programs and voter registration. King himself stayed in Chicago until taking time off in January 1967 to write Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Jackson also continued his Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket with some success, though city officials failed to take concrete steps to address issues of housing despite the summit agreement. King, in a 24 March 1967 press conference, said, “It appears that for all intents and purposes, the public agencies have [reneged] on the agreement and have, in fact given credence to [those] who proclaim the housing agreement a sham and a batch of false promises” (King, 24 March 1967).


Dorothy Cotton, Minutes, “Executive staff meeting,” 26 August–28 August 1965, SCLCR-GAMK.

“Dr. King Is Felled by Rock,” Chicago Tribune, 6 August 1966.

David Halvorsen, “Cancel Rights Marches,” Chicago Tribune, 27 August 1966.

Hampton, Fayer, and Flynn, Voices of Freedom, 1990.

King, Address at the Palmer House, 26 August 1966, CULC-ICIU.

King, Interview by Mr. Smith, 18 March 1966, MLKJP-GAMK

King, Press conference at Liberty Baptist Church, 24 March 1967, MLKJP-GAMK.

King, Where Do We Go from Here, 1967.