“As Chicago goes, so goes the nation,” was how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the city before taking the Civil Rights Movement north in early 1966.
Upon leaving later that summer, King remarked that the hatred he and his followers experienced in Chicago was the worse he’d ever seen. The story of King’s brief stay in Chicago is a little-known part of his activism, according to a filmmaker who has made the only film detailing King’s time in the city.
“Chicago was a departure for King and the movement,” said Seth McClellan, a documentary filmmaker whose, King in Chicago, chronicles the civil rights leader’s efforts in the Windy City. The 58-minute film debuted in 2008 – a shorter version was made in 2007.
King targeted Chicago as a central piece of the movement’s expansion to the North. McClellan noted that King had secured significant victories in the South before traveling to Chicago. The civil rights leader came to protest against housing discrimination in the city, but King would not see such rousing victories in Chicago.
His Chicago stay has been obscured by myths and misinformation, according to McClellan, who’s also a mass communication teacher at Triton College in River Grove. Though some historians say King’s efforts failed in Chicago, McClellan believes it was a mixed bag for King.
“It wasn’t as black and white as it was in the South,” he said. “This was dealing with city poverty issues, which is not as cut-and-dried as trying to change laws in the South. This was just a new battle and a new set of problems – how do you deal with poverty in big cities.”
“And Chicago was a liberal, Democratic city,” McClellan adds, noting that it wasn’t always clear who were King’s friends and enemies.
“When you’re dealing with some hate-filled guy who’s siccing dogs on you and spraying fire hoses on little children, it’s pretty obvious who the bad guys are. That’s different from shaking hands with someone who says, ‘I support you,’ when they really don’t.”
While Mayor Richard J. Daley would rally with King in the South, his administration was not supportive of King’s work in Chicago, McClellan said.
The filmmaker was familiar with a couple of books written about King’s work in Chicago but McClellan’s is the first film made on the subject. He spent a year and a half working on it. The documentary features interviews with such people as Rev. Jesse Jackson as well as the late Rev. James Bevel, one of King’s most trusted aides and whom McClellan would later focus on in a separate film.
McClellan’s film about King has played in festivals in the United States and Canada, and has aired on PBS. The film had a showing recently in Oak Park on Dr. King’s holiday on Jan. 16. The documentary intersperses interviews with still photos of King and other figures from the time. The film’s structure, says McClellan, was influenced by author and historian Studs Terkel’s oral history recordings. McClellan also wanted to talk with people “at ground level” in Chicago’s movement and not just those who were better known.
McClellan said making the film was a labor of love.
“It’s an important story that people just don’t know about,” he said. “Making it changed my life. The ideas and passion of non-violent protest is an important thing to draw our attention to.”