An Oak Park filmmaker’s documentary on the Chicago Freedom Movement, which aired on WTTW Channel 11 last week in commemoration of the movement’s 50th anniversary, may be about a significant, if often overlooked, period in American history, but it’s director says it’s far from over.
In fact, said Seth McClellan in a recent interview, that specific movement in the past was just prologue for today’s struggles against urban poverty and racial injustice.
In January 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. announced plans for the movement, which included his decision to stay in an apartment on the city’s West Side “to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment,” the civil rights leader said at the time.
“I shot the film about a decade ago and it aired on Channel 11 in 2009,” said McClellan, who teaches video production and film history at Triton College in suburban River Grove. “They wanted to broadcast it again, particularly since a lot of the struggles of the Freedom Movement continue to resonate, because we’re dealing with some of the same problems now.”
According to Stanford’s King Institute Encyclopedia, planning on what’s often called King’s Chicago Campaign began during the summer of 1965, when a group of Chicago civil rights organizations asked the prominent minister to help them fight segregation in schools, housing and most workplaces in the city.
Almost immediately, King confronted challenges that were different from the ones he’d encountered while successfully challenging the Jim Crow laws across his native South. The leaders confronted a unique urbanized form of racism that was much quieter and more sophisticated than the overt racism symbolized by Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s barking dogs and fire hoses.
King noted at the time that “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.”
McClellan said the struggle that King and other local activists started 50 years ago is now being waged by the diverse array of activists and organizers affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think Black Lives Matter and people like Michelle Alexander (author of the popular book The New Jim Crow) are working on the same stuff that King was fighting 50 years ago,” McClellan said, adding that those thinkers and activists are much more engaged with how the myth and stigma of black criminality reinforce certain aspects of systemic racism.
“They’re talking about the prison industrial complex as well as urban poverty,” he said.
For McClellan, today’s era of civil rights activism demonstrates one of his film’s central messages.
King’s Chicago period, he said, is often considered by observers a failure in relation to his overwhelmingly successful Southern campaign despite the Freedom Movement’s widely recognized influence in the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed discriminatory real estate practices and created federal agencies to ensure that the law was enforced.
What gets lost in the schoolbook romanticism of the Civil Rights Movement, McClellan said, is how much time and hard work by ordinary people predated it. The cinematic successes, he said, were just climaxes to a centuries-long struggle. But that was then, the filmmaker argues. The new civil rights struggle, placed squarely in the country’s crime-ridden urban ghettos, is just beginning.
“I made the film because nobody had ever tried to put this story into a coherent documentary,” said McClellan. “We like stories that have a certain structure and have clear bad guys and good guys — and where somebody wins at the end. That was very much the Southern story. Chicago, however, is the beginning of something new. These are hard problems. They’re massive, massive problems even though you see people like our current Republican nominee saying he’s going to fix things in a minute. That’s not how things work.”