The Impact and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Illinois

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. always chose courage and determination when fighting for civil rights in the face of ignorance, oppression, and violence. Dr. King never chose fear, and he stood by his goal of achieving rights for all through peace and nonviolent protests. 

Dr. King’s leadership played a key role in ending segregation for African Americans in the U.S. and paved the way for the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

During the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, most of the largest demonstrations were in the South. In late 1965, Dr. King brought his crusade for civil rights to Chicago at the invitation of the Chicago Freedom Movement. This coalition of 44 civil rights organizations was working to end slums and improve living conditions for African Americans living in the city. They also wanted to address entrenched racial discrimination in urban cities, conditions that kept most African Americans with low paying jobs and living in ghettos while their children attended overcrowded schools. 

To raise awareness of the poor living conditions for Chicago’s African American population, Dr. King and his family moved into a west-side ghetto apartment in January 1966. The campaign ‘End Slums’ became known as the Chicago Freedom Movement, a collaboration of Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the summer of 1966, two marches helped get the word out about what local civil rights activists were fighting for. 

In July 1966, more than 30,000 people endured near 100-degree heat to hear Dr. King speak at Soldier Field. The ensuing march ended at City Hall, where he taped a list of demands to an entrance. Later in August in Marquette Park, Dr. King was swarmed by hundreds of white protestors hurling rocks, bottles, and bricks. He was struck in the head and remained in a kneeling position for a few seconds, and the shocking image was captured by photographers for everyone to see. 

The conflict and tension eventually led to Dr. King and Mayor Richard J. Daley coming to a ‘Summit Agreement.’ This agreement resulted to help make open housing a reality and provided for some concessions and benefits, but it did not achieve the full impact desired by the Chicago Freedom Movement. 

Dr. King’s voice and actions were prominent elsewhere in Illinois, with his first major address in Chicago coming on the University of Chicago campus in 1956. He made two more visits there in the next decade, continuing to inspire new audiences with his message of hope, justice, and courage. 

Dr. King delivered a Convocation speech at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington in 1966, where he included some of his most famous quotes – “We have come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved;” “The basic thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but his eternal dignity and worth;” and “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, in a sense he is not fit to live. And the nonviolent discipline says that there is power in this approach, precisely because it disarms the opponent and exposes his more defenses.” 

Dr. King was assassinated at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, by James Earl Ray. The aftermath brought forth outbreaks of racial violence nationwide, resulting in more than 40 deaths and extensive property damage in over 100 American cities.  In Illinois, violence erupted in Aurora, Joliet, Evanston, Maywood, Chicago Heights, East St. Louis, Alton, and Carbondale. In Chicago, three days of violence killed nine, injured 500 and resulted in 3,000 arrests. 

On September 17, 1973, Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a legal holiday. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law legislation that made Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday. Landmarks for Dr. King are found all across the state today, including in Alton, Springfield, Decatur, Rock Island, East Moline, and Chicago. 

Photo Credit: CULR_04_0120_1392_001, Chicago Urban League Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking in Chicago, April 17, 1968
Photo by Ted Bell