Reflections on an Era return to index
Bernard LaFayette, a co-founder of SNCC, was involved in numerous major protests in the South during the mid-1960s. He was in the vanguard of the effort to fight injustice outside of the South, helping initiate SCLC's work in Chicago in 1965 and coordinating the Poor People's Campaign of 1968. Here he describes the reasoning behind going to Chicago.
by Bernard LaFayette
One of the reasons we were pushing for SCLC to come to Chicago is because there was this myth about the subtlety of the problems in Chicago. People would say that there are problems, but it's not the same as in the South, and its easier to address the problems in the South, because they're so blatant and obvious, but things in Chicago are sort of beneath the surface, and they are sort of smoothed over, and the real issues are not there. Well, one of the things that Martin Luther King did in the movement was really dramatize the issues by his presence and being able to articulate them in such a way that everything became very obvious.
Chicago was a symbol of things that were happening in places like Newark and Detroit, Philadelphia and New York, and other large metropolitan areas. This was an opportunity to experiment with the whole nonviolent approach to see whether or not we could apply to the North some of the same organizing techniques and principles and strategies that we used in the South. That was the basic reason why we wanted to come to Chicago.
The other reason for choosing Chicago as opposed to some other places was that something like forty-two percent of the blacks in Chicago were either first or second generation from Mississippi. You know, Chicago is right above Mississippi, so people migrate straight up the line. We had a lot of experience dealing with black Mississippians, and here they were transplanted North. Some had very close relationships and would go back and forth and spend time in Mississippi. So there was a good deal of appreciation for what we were doing and a good deal of respect for Martin Luther King.
Mayor [Richard J.] Daley was considered a liberal mayor and was very supportive of civil rights in the South. And you had a good deal of black participation in the government.
One of the surprises is that we thought that many of the blacks who were part of the Daley machine would have been supportive. But we found that some were very unsupportive, even though they were very supportive of the movement in the South. But when we talked about the kind of issues and problems that exist in their own communities -- because they were very tightly controlled, even down to the precinct level -- they were people who were very resistant. We came to understand that their jobs were tied to their involvement in the maintenance of the machine, and when we began to challenge some of the conditions and some of the issues in the local communities, then we got severe reactions.
We began to see that there were patterns of segregation and discrimination, clear patterns. For example, there were no signs that said "Blacks Cannot Live Here," but it was white only and it was obviously white only. There were reasons why it was white, not because blacks chose not to live in those communities. It's because they were systematically denied, primarily by the real estate agents. Therefore, the real estate agents have control. And they were doing what we call blockbusting, where they would allow a few blacks to move into a neighborhood that was all white in order to cause the whites to become fearful. Many of the real estate agents claimed that, "Oh, well, this is just business." Because you had black and white real estate agents working together. This was another thing different from the South. They worked hand in hand in Chicago because they all made money. The blacks were willing to pay more money for overpriced housing because their market was limited. The whites, on the other hand, were afraid of blacks. The real estate agents helped to put the fear in them. Well, whenever the real estate turned over, the banks and the real estate companies and the taxes and everything else went into play. So the slums actually was a way of exploiting both blacks and whites.
One of the things that we recognized is that in the black communities, in many cases, the city did not keep up the same level of services. The parks were neglected, for example, where black people live. The streets were not swept. And, you know, there are basic kinds of things that have something to do with the appearance of the community. So naturally when white people saw the conditions of the community, they assumed that that was going to happen to their community, they assumed it was related to blacks. Well, blacks didn't do it. Because blacks didn't have the power to determine who would sweep their streets and when they would be swept. So everybody was part of the conspiracy.
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From Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), pp. 299-300, 301-302, 307-308.