Part 1: Great Migration and the Brutal Reality of the “Promised Land”
Racist Mobs, Continued Segregation, and the Hand of Those in Power
In the years and decades after World War 2, Black people in the Chicago area continued to face KKK-style violence if they defied segregation. In 1947, when a few Black veterans moved into the Fernwood section, gangs of whites rioted for three nights, pulling Black people off streetcars and beating them. In 1951, thousands of whites in Cicero, just west of Chicago, attacked an apartment building that housed a single Black family. A Cook County grand jury refused to indict the racist rioters, instead indicting the family’s lawyer and the apartment’s white owner for “conspiring” to lower property values.
In the summer of 1966, in the context of uprisings of Black people in cities across the U.S. that would become even greater through the rest of the ’60s, Martin Luther King Jr. led his first marches beyond the South in Chicago against school and housing segregation. King was a promoter of reforming the system, working consciously against more radical and revolutionary forces, and had been in close contact with President Lyndon B. Johnson, at times talking on the phone daily to coordinate actions. But Johnson—widely hated at the time for the U.S. war in Vietnam, but whose reputation is being rehabilitated today as the architect of the “Great Society” reforms—was opposed to King going to Chicago. As historian Taylor Branch recounts, Johnson talked directly on the phone with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was trying to hamper King’s campaign and drive him out of the city—which is what essentially happened.
The non-violent marches that King and others led through different white neighborhoods came under violent attack from howling racist mobs. Among those injured in one march was a nun hit by a brick thrown at her head. In another march in Marquette Park, King himself was hit in the head by a rock. He later said, “I have never in my life seen such hate. Not in Mississippi or Alabama.” These vicious assaults happened as the marches were supposedly under police “escort” provided by Mayor Daley. This was the same police force that, only two years later, Daley would order to brutally crack down on peaceful young protesters at the Democratic National Convention. Who can seriously believe that Daley had nothing to do with allowing the King marchers to come under attack from the lynch mobs?
King stopped the campaign in Chicago and left, after signing a toothless agreement with Daley and real estate interests in the city that promised a few paltry reforms—promises which weren’t even kept. It was not until 1968—after the most massive urban rebellions in U.S. history, in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination—that Johnson signed the federal Fair Housing Act, a basically toothless law that was a mere show of action against segregation.
Making of the “Second Ghetto”
While the U.S. government subsidized housing for white people through FHA and VA mortgages, the form of government-subsidized housing for a significant section of Black people after World War 2 was the inner city housing projects. The projects were built in already-established Black ghettos because of official government policy. During the FDR era, the Public Works Administration had mandated a “neighborhood composition rule,” under which government projects were not allowed to alter the “racial composition” of the neighborhoods they were built in, and this rule was still in effect. In other words, projects built in white areas had to be for white people, and those built in Black areas were restricted to African-Americans. While there were some housing projects built in white areas before World War 2, the post-war projects in Chicago were mainly built to warehouse and control poor Black people.
In 1949, a new federal housing act sent millions of dollars into Chicago and other cities for housing projects. Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, “Beginning in 1950, site selection for public housing proceeded entirely on the grounds of segregation. By the 1960s, [Chicago] had created with its vast housing projects what the historian Arnold R. Hirsch calls a ‘second ghetto,’ one larger than the old Black Belt but just as impermeable. More than 98 percent of all the family public-housing units built in Chicago between 1950 and the mid-1960s were built in all-black neighborhoods.” These projects—Robert Taylor, Cabrini Green, and others—became highly concentrated areas of poverty, the site of eight of the poorest 20 census tracts in the U.S. And the police targeted the people living in these projects with pervasive, dehumanizing brutality, murder and terror.
The construction of the Black housing projects—and the maintenance of blatant segregation in the city overall—was orchestrated by the powerful Democratic Party “machine” in Chicago and Cook County, headed up by Richard J. Daley. Daley would be mayor for 20 years, and his connections and influence reached way beyond the city to the Democratic Party on the highest levels nationally. The Daley “machine” controlled officials—including Black politicians—in all of the city’s 50 wards, commanded thousands of precinct captains spread out over every block of the city, dispensed tens of thousands of city patronage jobs, ran the police department notorious for brutality and torture against Black people, and used ties to organized criminal groups for their own ends.
One biography of Daley, who himself lived in the almost all-white neighborhood of Bridgeport, describes his “commitment to racial segregation”: “He preserved the city’s white neighborhoods and business district by building racial separation into the very concrete of the city. New development—housing, highways, and schools—were built where they would serve as a barrier between white neighborhoods and the black ghetto. Daley worked with powerful business leaders to revitalize downtown by pushing poor blacks out, replacing them with middle-class whites. But Daley’s most striking accomplishment was Chicago’s deeply troubled public housing projects. Daley used public housing as a repository for thousands of blacks who might otherwise have ended up moving into white neighborhoods.”
The Democratic presidential administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), which oversaw the oppressive policies of the FHA and VA that provided federal help for white people buying homes and the building up of white neighborhoods and suburbs, while denying such help for Black people; and successive presidents, Republican and Democratic, who continued the same practice. The Roosevelt administration also introduced the “neighborhood composition rule” mandating that any government housing projects not alter the racial composition of the neighborhood—which was a factor in the building of huge projects in poor Black areas of Chicago and other cities.
These discriminatory housing policies were part of FDR’s New Deal laws and policies that the U.S. rulers as a whole saw as crucial to protecting and moving forward their system in the wake of the Depression and into World War 2. Nowadays, the New Deal is praised widely by liberals and some even call for a “new New Deal.” In reality, the reforms of the New Deal included steps by the U.S. ruling class to reinforce white supremacy, in the context of a new and changing situation internationally and domestically, as well as FDR’s compromises with the “Dixiecrats”—segregationist southern Democrats—in return for cooperation with the federal laws and policies.
The segregation of Black people has served, and continues to serve, the U.S. rulers and their system in many ways. The ghettoization of Black neighborhoods has been part of the extreme exploitation—keeping Black people in the lowest rungs of the workforce, when they can get work, and then further gouging them through inflated living costs, financial chicanery and so on. And there are important ideological dimensions. The physical separation, and the deliberate deterioration, of the Black neighborhoods serve to codify the demonization and stigmatization of Black people. At the same time, this reinforces the glue of “whiteness”—the ways in which the system trains white people to consider themselves entitled to privilege and to see their position and interests in opposition to Black and other oppressed people, and with the white ruling class of capitalist-imperialists.
Mayor Daley and the Democratic Party “machine” in Chicago, including Black politicians, who continued and, in some ways, as in the building of the huge housing projects, intensified the segregation of the city, as part of the overall oppression of Black people in all areas of life.
Real estate interests, who—with collusion of city officials and police—made huge profits through “block busting” and selling houses on extremely exploitative terms to Black people.
The FHA justified its policies favoring whites and discriminating against Black people for mortgages by saying they were aiming for “stability,” racial “harmony” and preservation of real estate values. An FHA manual for appraisers, for example, said: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values.”
Along with this, a whole white-supremacist mythology was promoted claiming that white people earned their homes by “working hard,” while Black people lived in slums because they did not. As Thomas Sugrue observed in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, “Residence in the inner city became a self-perpetuating stigma. Increasing joblessness, and the decaying infrastructure of inner-city neighborhoods, reinforced white stereotypes of black people, families, and communities.” This, of course, is tantamount to blaming those held in concentration camps for the wretched and horrific conditions imposed on them—which the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany, like all racial supremacists, in fact did.
In Chicago, Daley and the Democratic Party “machine” touted the building of the Black housing projects as part of the “urban renewal” of the city.
THE REAL MOTIVE:
The story of how Chicago’s Black ghetto came to be is part of the whole ugly history—and the continuing nightmare—of the oppression of African-Americans, as a people, in the United States. The exploitation and oppression of Black people and other oppressed people is a key pillar of the capitalist-imperialist system—and, as we have shown in this one example here, it is kept going by institutions, interests, and ideology at the very marrow of the bones of American capitalism-imperialism. And the rulers will not—and, more profoundly, cannot—get rid of it.
The early history of segregation in Chicago—and in Part 2, we will detail how and why Chicago remains a “hyper-segregated” city and what that means for today—shows one aspect of what Bob Avakian points out in BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian:
If you want to talk about who owes whom—if you keep in mind everything the capitalists (as well as the slaveowners) have accumulated through all the labor Black people have carried out in this country and the privileges that have been passed out to people on that basis—there wouldn’t even be a U.S. imperialism as there is today if it weren’t for the exploitation of Black people under this system. Not that the exploitation of Black people is the whole of it—there has been a lot of other people exploited, both in the U.S. and internationally, by this ruling class. But there wouldn’t be a U.S. imperialism in the way there is today if it weren’t for the exploitation of Black people under slavery and then after slavery in the sharecropping system and in the plants and other workplaces in a kind of caste-like oppression in the cities. (BAsics 1:12)
Bob Avakian, BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, RCP Publications, 2011
Bob Avakian, “Forced Segregation: A Neighborhood Story,” revcom.us.
Bob Avakian, “Suburbanization, Segregation and the Promotion of White Supremacy,” in THE BASIS, THE GOALS, AND THE METHODS OF COMMUNIST REVOLUTION, revcom.us.
Steve Bogira, “Separate, Unequal, and Ignored,” Chicago Reader, February 10, 2011.
Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, American Pharaoh, Mayor Richard J. Daley—His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, Back Bay Books, 2001.
Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960, The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Tami Luhby, “Chicago: America’s Most Segregated City,” cnn.com, January 5, 2016.
Whet Moser, “Housing Discrimination in America Was Perfected in Chicago,” Chicago, May 5, 2014.
Whet Moser, “Chicago Isn’t Just Segregated, It Basically Invented Modern Segregation,” Chicago, March 31, 2017.
Revcom.us, “How the System Ghetto-ized Black People in Chicago,” December 6, 1998.
Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Liveright, 2017