Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Radical Vision of Replacing Residential Caste with Communities of Love and Justice
On January 29, 2023, law professor and acclaimed author Sheryll Cashin delivered her Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunrise Celebration keynote at the American Library Association’s annual Library Learning Experience meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. She talked about Dr. King’s Chicago Freedom Movement to explain his vision of mobilizing poor Black communities to strike down the US’s residential caste system. Contrary to popular belief, the North was never the liberal haven it fancied itself to be.
As a daughter of civil rights activists from Alabama who knew Dr. King personally, it is a great honor to address you today for a Sunrise Celebration of him! And it is a joy for me, as a writer, to address librarians. I want to begin by thanking you for your service, for what you do to bring books and truth for free to the masses!
Let me begin with some truth telling of my own about Dr. King. I suspect it is easier for many Americans to focus on his words of love and harmony rather than on his radical agenda for change. Associating him and the movement he led with ending the old Jim Crow of the South is a comforting vindication of American progress.
But a close look at King’s words and deeds in pressing his vision on the North and the rest of the nation might render him a more dangerous or uncomfortable figure. And yet, in our current moment of toxic division, his ideas for radical transformation and reconciliation are more relevant than ever.
In preparing to speak to you, I read and reflected on a chapter from a wonderful book, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapter 28 is about King’s involvement with a campaign for “open housing” in Chicago. In 1966, Dr. King moved his family into a tenement apartment in one of the poorest communities in the Windy City. This was his entrée to northern agitation. King wanted to help organize a broad, nonviolent movement that would attack hypersegregation—“the ghetto”—and the systemic exclusion of Black Americans from white neighborhoods. Reading this chapter was a refreshing primer on King’s tactics for nonviolent social change.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference which King led, and its many local affiliates, had mounted successful nonviolent sit-ins throughout the South. Black Americans protested so that they could sit, shop, eat, travel, learn, and work where they desired. Birmingham was the symbolic city in which social confrontation ultimately altered politics. When Bull Connor turned fire hoses and attack dogs on crusading children the nation was horrified, and this ushered passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the wake of those victories, Dr. King thought that Chicago would be an equally strategic city for piercing the nation’s conscience about northern segregation. A broad coalition of local Black groups had been agitating for open housing. They invited King and SCLC to join their campaign. Together, they planned marches, rallies, and other strategic confrontation, like kneeling and praying in front of realtor’s offices. They called it the Chicago Freedom Movement. Their goal was to enable Black Americans to move out of dilapidated tenements and access opportunity elsewhere. They wanted to dismantle the system of residential caste that the Great Migrants were consigned to. They wanted to transform all social institutions to include Black citizens and make upward mobility real for all people.
While the southern civil rights movement had been powered mainly by middle-class people, in Chicago, Dr. King wanted to begin organizing with people trapped in concentrated poverty. And so he moved his family to North Lawndale, then a West Side locale of poverty that was more than 90 percent Black.
Lawndale was also minutes from the white suburban sundown town of Cicero, which had violently repelled Blacks who tried to move there.
King immediately noticed that his Lawndale neighbors paid more in rent or purchase price for wretched housing than whites paid for modern homes in the suburbs. And they paid more for food and consumer goods. They could not leave Lawndale, nor could they access jobs that were elsewhere. This social system, which King likened to a “ghetto prison” or a domestic colony, was in many ways more resistant to change than the caste system SCLC had attacked in the rural south. And yet King and others in the Chicago movement had the audacity to try.
Dr. King refused to approach this movement with gradualism. He said, and I quote: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy, now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all God’s children.” And so, as they had in Birmingham and Selma, they demanded change through nonviolent confrontation.
First, they organized, including recruiting Black gang members to lay down their arms and join their nonviolent cause. Then they marched in white neighborhoods. They were met with bricks, bottles, swastikas, firecrackers, and chants of “white power.”
At a march through Marquette Park on the South Side, as thousands of whites tried to thwart them, a stone struck King’s head, and he knelt with supporters.
In the interlude, King said before cameras, “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago.” Then they continued the march.
Two months of confrontation in the summer of 1966 led to negotiation and a written commitment to open housing from the City of Chicago and its Board of Realtors. Sadly, the agreement was not enforced and did not change housing patterns. But it inspired the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that would be passed in the wake of King’s assassination.
King’s radical vision of humans of all colors working together to replace residential caste with communities of love and justice may seem quaint or naïve. But the Fair Housing Act planted a seed. It included a requirement that localities receiving government funding must “affirmatively further fair housing.” Nearly five decades later, a certain President named Barack Obama was the first to issue a regulation to actually enforce that requirement. President Obama, who had worked in Chicago as a community organizer, began to attack systemic segregation by requiring localities to do more than just plan. The “AFFH rule” pushed them to adopt policies that actually resulted in more inclusion.
Unfortunately, Obama’s successor rescinded the AFFH regulation and tried to woo suburban voters in 2020 by promising to insulate them from affordable housing. President Biden’s administration has proposed to reinstate the rule.
Birmingham, Selma, Chicago. These examples vindicate King’s philosophy that tension was necessary to spreading awareness of systems of oppression. This is how you gather multiracial political power for change.
With the key planks of American segregation countered by new civil rights laws, Dr. King turned to tackling poverty and economic oppression. He had endured the backlash of those who saw civil rights gains as coming at the expense of whites. But he did not give up on the radical Christian ideal of redemption and agape love in which former enemies might become friends.
In the last months of his life, King was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. He aimed to build a multiracial army, to bring poor Blacks, whites, Latinos, Indigenous people, and others to the National Mall to demand an economic bill of rights.
He wanted all people to be able to work to feed a family, and have economic security when work disappeared. He hoped that with this basic, pure goal, the movement would find a middle ground—between frustrated urban rebellion on the left and backlash on the right.
As we know, King was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968. But Rev. Ralph Abernathy and SCLC were determined to see King’s vision through. By June 19 (“Juneteenth”), Solidarity Day for the campaign, a rainbow of poor people had erected Resurrection City on the Mall. This settlement of tents housed some 7,000 people.
More than 50,000 people were on the Mall for the culminating rally on Solidarity Day. But no economic bill of rights resulted. And, without King’s sonorous voice on the Mall, that campaign, and its message of economic justice, was largely erased from our nation’s collective memory.
The Poor People’s Campaign was not in vain. It inspired the Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and a new, national Poor People’s Campaign that Barber started. The new campaign continues to organize poor and working-class people and gather power across boundaries of race.
In a time of division, dismantling structures that set people apart or creating class solidarity across races for policies that tackle economic inequality seem nearly impossible. In my own work, I have thought a lot about how we might abolish and repair the system of residential caste that King and others tried to disrupt in the Chicago Freedom Campaign. In the final chapter of my most recent book, White Space, Black Hood, I argue that the first step to transformation is to change the lens applied to people trapped in concentrated poverty. RIFF, change lens, frees you to focus on evidence-based strategies. And I think it is possible, now, to get started building small examples of Beloved Community King imagined. I will leave you with some hopeful examples.
In 2018, Minneapolis repealed its single-family home zoning—a policy that maintains race and class segregation across the country in part by keeping affordable housing out of affluent communities. Under Minneapolis’ new law, duplexes and triplexes can be built in any neighborhood throughout the city. Before this transformation, 70 percent of land in the city was zoned only for single-family homes—part of Minneapolis’ legacy of extreme racial segregation.
Advocates laid the groundwork for this sea change through widespread education about the city’s history of redlining and intentional segregation. After a few years of civic education, the law repealing single family zoning passed by a vote of 12-1 in the city council. The city also now permits more apartment buildings to be built near transit stops and has adopted “inclusionary zoning” requiring that 10 percent of new apartment units go to moderate-income people. And Minneapolis has increased funding to combat homelessness and subsidize low-income renters.
There is an emerging movement, as well, toward promoting racial equity in city budgeting and disrupting a long history of disinvestment in Black and minority communities. Some cities become equality innovators, including Newark, NJ, Gary, IN, and Savannah, GA. They reduced violent crime from 2019 to 2020 through social experiments, including universal basic income pilots, hiring former offenders to help defuse gun violence , and deconcentrating poverty by moving tenants out of high-rise public housing to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. It bears emphasis that these are majority Black communities that are applying a lens of care in formulating their policies.
Many cities, including New Orleans, have removed statues from public spaces that exalted Confederate traitors to the Union and stood as symbols of white supremacy. Progressive cities are not perfect. Like all innovators, they make mistakes. But places that acknowledge truth and wrestle with past and present policies that diverge from America’s professed ideals should be applauded for trying.
As we celebrate Dr. King, we should all recommit to his work at transformation, reckoning, and reconciliation. Because without it we will get more of the same—an often cheap politics of division that harms democracy and struggling people of all colors.
About the Author
Sheryll Cashin is an acclaimed author who writes about the US struggle with racism and inequality. Her books have been nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction, and an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review. Cashin is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law, Civil Rights and Social Justice at Georgetown University and an active member of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. A law clerk to US Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, Cashin also worked in the Clinton White House as an advisor on community development in inner-city neighborhoods. She is a contributing editor for Politico Magazine and currently resides in Washington, DC, with her husband and twin sons. Follow her at sheryllcashin.com and on Twitter (@sheryllcashin).