Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago: The story of a turning point

Considerations of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. will be increasingly in evidence as the nation approaches the April 4 50th anniversary of the assassination of the civil rights leader, with his legacy intact but his work still undone.

A powerful new exhibit at the Chicago History Museum provides firm grounding to participate in the conversation, in words and, especially, in pictures.

“Remembering Dr. King 1929-1968” pays special attention to King’s Chicago experience, which began early in the civil rights movement, with a sermon delivered at Shiloh Baptist Church in 1956, and continued through his habitation, a decade later, of a North Lawndale apartment and concurrent, tumultuous marches for housing equality.

King made stubbornly segregated Chicago a pivot point in his move to turn the civil rights movement from Southern discrimination against African-Americans to broader injustices across the country.

“In some ways you could argue this was the place that made him reconsider the nature of racism in America,” said John Russick, the museum’s vice president for interpretation and education. “It’s a really critical moment when he came here.”

Segments of Chicago, the general-admission exhibition makes clear, were not buying King’s message.

Among the most potent images are counterprotestors to a King-led open housing march in the Southwest Side’s Ashburn neighborhood, smiling young white men holding a Confederate flag and a sign reading “White Power.”

A week earlier, on Aug. 5, 1966, King was struck by a rock at another equal housing march, this one in the Marquette Park neighborhood. In the exhibit’s photograph, from the Chicago Defender, King is shown buckled over immediately after the blow, his compatriots holding him up by an arm.

This was the reception the Nobel Peace Prize winner got in our heavily (and still) segregated city, a level of vitriol that led him to later proclaim “that he had never encountered such hatred,” in the words of the exhibition.

It’s an image, too, that could serve as metaphor for King’s final years. When he kept his criticisms narrow and obvious, American public opinion was with him, but “Remembering Dr. King” also shows “how unpopular he was at the end of his life as he spoke out against Vietnam and critiqued American poverty,” said Joy Bivins, who curated the show.

The exhibition, which opened in January in a modest-sized gallery, puts a timeline of the Atlanta-reared Baptist minister’s life along the outer wall, along with a case of artifacts, including the canceled check for the $5,000 speaker’s fee paid to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for King’s keynote address at a 1964 Soldier Field civil rights rally.

The first of two rallies he would lead at the football stadium, that June 21, 1964, event, which drew 75,000, came at a heated time in the struggle. It occurred just days after the U.S. Senate passed the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 and on the same day, the timeline shows, that voter registration workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared in Mississippi.

Despite the small gallery, the exhibit is designed with an open floor plan, Russick said, to easily accommodate school groups that might make it part of a visit that would also include the current special exhibition “Race: Are We So Different?,” an exploration of a classification system that is rooted in social convention, not science.

One might wish for the King-related prints to be more vivid, on photographic paper, especially in a space that long held the museum’s exhibit of Vivian Maier photos. But putting the images on posterboard allows for durability, for visitors to get up close, and for them to be mounted double-sided and suspended from wires to form partial walls in the room’s center.

You might want more, too, on the impact of the Chicago moves, especially as, five decades letter, the city remains among the nation’s most segregated. But a museum exhibit, Bivins has said, is more of a movie than a book; the fact that you come away wanting to know more suggests it has done its job.

Fittingly in this anniversary year, a substantial proportion of “Remembering Dr. King” is devoted to his killing, in Memphis as he supported striking sanitation workers there, including the riots that resulted in American cities and moving images from his funeral in Atlanta.

Chicago photos include the stark front page of the April 5, 1968, Sun-Times, bearing only four words, “MARTIN LUTHER KING SLAIN,” and storefront graffiti reading, “THE KING IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE KING.”

But the exhibit also spells out “how early and often he was in Chicago promoting the work happening in the South,” Bivins, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said via e-mail.

Included is a reproduction of a program listing the 1958 speakers forum at the Reform synagogue Beth Emet in Evanston. People in January of that year could see King, “one of the most admired religious leaders of the world,” for a $1.75 admission charge.

And his 1956 sermon at Chicago’s Shiloh Baptist, titled “A Knock at Midnight” and calling on churches to “be active in times of crisis,” came less than two weeks after his family home in Montgomery, Ala., was bombed, the timeline spells out.

“I hope people walk away realizing that the civil rights movement didn’t just happen in the South,” Bivins said, “that Chicago had its own struggles with racism and that then, just as now, activists engaged those issues.”

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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