The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago today. King’s career was nearing its height with his role in the March and his “I Have a Dream” speech. Just a couple of years after the March on Washington, King moved to Chicago and the latter part of his career fell outside of the familiar Civil Rights narrative of the earlier years of the movement.
In 1964, King spoke at Chicago’s Soldier Field to rally support for the Civil Rights Act. As I wrote in Grant Park: The Evolution of Chicago’s Front Yard, King’s “appearance in Chicago in 1964 reflected the shift to social action on ghettos, poverty, hunger, and poor-quality education found across the nation, including northern cities. The primary issue for Chicago and other cities would be the desegregation of schools.” At the end of 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize, and the following year he pressed for voting rights. Finally, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King pressed on and broadened his efforts beyond laws to the more difficult effort improving social and economic conditions in urban centers across the nation.
In 1966, King moved to Chicago’s West Side. He lived in a small apartment and addressed key issues of poverty and jobs. King hearkened back to the earlier civil-rights struggle, but he broadened his agenda. In Chicago, King was met as an intruder, and his actions had few long range results. Nonetheless, as we reflect on King’s address at the March on Washington, I would encourage you to follow his career into Chicago from the instructive gaze of 50 years onward. Many Americans were more comfortable with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when his efforts focused on the south. Yet, with his work in Chicago, he continued to answer his call as a Christian minister, aligning himself with the poor and underprivileged. It is part of his incredible legacy and ties King directly to Chicago. On this anniversary, I encourage you to seek out this part of King’s story and his legacy.