By Patricia Van Pelt

mlk chicagoIn honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I thought it was important for me, as a senator representing a predominately black district, to bring awareness to an aspect of his legacy many younger Chicagoans have not discovered, and others may have forgotten. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t just lead marches in the South; he often took to the streets of Chicago.

In the summer of 1966, King participated in a two-month fair housing campaign in Chicago. At the time, most neighborhoods were extremely segregated – Chicago, to this day, remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Black residents who sought homes in traditionally white middle class neighborhoods in the Chicago of 1966 were often the victims of discrimination, exclusion and violence.

Dr. King realized something needed to be done, but it took months to find a strategy. King, with the advisement of James Bevel, eventually executed a plan that would be known as the Chicago Freedom Movement, which consisted of tenants’ unions, testing (acts used to identify discrimination), government meetings and marches.

The violence and racial tensions between the marchers and the mob of angry white Chicagoans became national televised news, calling attention to the uncomfortable truth that the North was also home to the racial animus people associated with the South. One day, when King was taken to the ground by a rock, he said, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

By the end of the summer, King and Mayor Richard J. Daley reached a compromise: The marches would stop in exchange for policy reform. While the Chicago Freedom Movement did make some progress, it did not accomplish its full agenda. However in 1968, the U.S Congress passed a national fair housing law.

Sadly today, Chicago remains an example of why Dr. King’s work must continue. In a city of rich and diverse culture, groups are often isolated to their own neighborhoods. A main cause of this stems from the same thing Dr. King fought against all those years ago.

Being raised in the Cabrini-Green Projects, I have seen personally the horrors of inequitable housing. It saddens me that practices such as redlining and other acts of discrimination still exist. Worse is the vicious cycle of poverty that seems inescapable in certain neighborhoods, while other neighborhoods become unaffordable for their longtime residents due to gentrification. So many economic forces are arrayed against the minority homeowner: Minorities are conned out of investment opportunities. Businesses flee, taking jobs with them. Communities become desolate, incentivizing crime. And if the proper investments ever do come, black and brown folk are evicted, and while the area is reinvigorated, minorities are pushed out to another place.

So what is the solution? Real equity. It is crucial that every community is awarded the same advantages – economically and otherwise. Here are some ways we could do that, supported by a report from The Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute:

- Investing more equitably across the region
- Creating more employment opportunities in low income neighborhoods
- Supporting more equitable public transit systems
- Adopting a city earned income tax credit

The Cost of Segregation argues that if we lived in a more integrated Chicago, the income of African Americans would increase by nearly $3,000 per person a year, which would average an overall increase of $4 billion for our city. More than this, if our neighborhoods were safer, we would save money on policing costs, residential real estate would be more valuable, and more residents would be alive.

Chicago has the potential to be so much more than what it is. Chicago should be a place where cultures come together, rather than living apart. Chicago should be a place where there is economic growth all around it – rather than only in certain regions. Segregation affects quality of life – access not only to housing, but to healthcare, education, and employment. Chicagoans deserve the full extent of what we have to offer.





Patricia Van Pelt

Senator of the 5th District