Martin Luther King Jr. spent six months of his life in Chicago’s North Lawndale community in 1966, two years before an assassin’s bullet ended his life on a motel balcony in Memphis.
King brought his fight for equal justice to Chicago and took up residence in a rundown tenement at the corner of 16th and Hamlin. King and his family moved into 1550 S. Hamlin to protest the lack of affordable and decent housing for poor urban blacks during the Civil Rights Era.
A North Lawndale group today aims to recount Dr. King’s days in the community through pictures, audio recordings and personal interviews of residents and activists who worked with King to launch his “end slum housing” campaign. The campaign became known as the Chicago Freedom Movement.
More than four years ago, the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation launched a mission to create the MLK Memorial District. The goal was to create a living legacy to Dr. King’s fair housing campaign and mark his time in Chicago.
The multiphase project, when complete, will include an arts and technology center, a public library and a new campus park for Penn Elementary School. Key to the project was the construction of affordable rental apartments that opened in 2011 on the site where King once lived. And this summer another phase will be complete — the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center. The exhibit center will be housed on the ground level in the MLK Legacy Apartments.
LCDC’s executive director, Kim Jackson, says the center is about fulfilling a promise to the King family. Jackson said she promised Martin Luther King III that she would find a way to honor his father and the sacrifices the family made to give blacks a better life. Martin Luther King III came to Chicago to dedicate the building in 2011.
“He told the story about when he lived here for the summer and how bad it was … and his mother wouldn’t let him come out the house,” Jackson recalled. “These kids sacrificed a lot and we shouldn’t take that for granted.”
The exhibit center will offer an overview of Lawndale’s history, a replica of King’s apartment and interactive image displays of North Lawndale in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Some pictures are already on display in the exhibit center, including one of King shooting pool and another where King addresses a crowd gathered in the alley.
There are also pictures of Dr. King addressing throngs of people at a Solider Field rally and images of King ducking rocks being thrown at him by an angry white mob while marching for fair housing in Marquette Park.
Chicago is the only place King lived outside of the South during the Civil Rights Movement, and the exhibit aims to tell the Chicago side of that struggle, LCDC’s project manager Larry Dixon said.
“The Chicago story hasn’t been told and the King family itself thinks it is important that the Chicago story be told,” Dixon said. “We have people … who live in this community and have no idea that Dr. King lived in North Lawndale. We just want to preserve the history and tell the story right.”
LCDC is not only furthering King’s dream of quality housing, but also pushing his principle of economic empowerment. LCDC officials hope the district, which will stretch from Hamlin to Springfield along 16th Street, will spur economic revitalization on that thoroughfare. The area was decimated by the riots following King’s assassination, leaving patches of vacant land, boarded-up businesses and divestment on the West Side.
The apartments will house the Roots Café, which will double as a commercial kitchen to help start-up caterers grow their businesses. Also the café will offer cooking lessons to teach healthy eating habits. Jackson said Dr. King came to Chicago to organize around housing, jobs, economic development and education. She said spurring economic growth is part of Dr. King’s original movement.
King’s Chicago visit had a broader impact than addressing slum housing, said Jesse Miller, who organized with Dr. King during his stay here. King wanted to see if he could replicate the struggle against slumlords in other urban cities, Miller said. North Lawndale, he explained, had all the problems of urban America — poor education, no jobs and lack of access to health care.
“Any problem a people would have to stop them from going forward as human beings, we had it in North Lawndale,” said Miller, a member of the MLK Legacy Preservation Committee. “Dr. King thought if we could put together a plan to alter or change North Lawndale, then we could do it in any urban city in America because the components of the problem would be similar.”
King chose North Lawndale, he said, “to better inform and educate the people” about the plight of blacks in the North. But the legacy he left was to teach residents to advocate for themselves.
“Dr. King felt like he had done all he could do because it really was about bringing Chicagoans together,” Jackson said.
While many believe King’s dream is only partially fulfilled, Miller has a different view. He said Monday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama is a testament to what King wanted for all men.
“Mankind benefited from Dr. King, not just blacks,” Miller said.