Segregation City: Chicago in the 60s

Chicago, like the rest of the North, was not a racial paradise.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

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A police raid on a bar. A fire hydrant turned off. In the mid-1960s, that's all it took to start a race war. And it was not uncommon, from 1965 to 1968, to see blacks battling white police in the streets of northern cities. When the last shot was fired, hundreds were dead and thousands wounded.

The urban riots exposed the awful truth. Segregation was everywhere, not just in southern schools. In the North, it was called the black ghetto, a place where jobs were scarce and poverty rampant. And in few places was the ghetto bigger or the conditions worse than in Chicago.

During World War I, when black farmers in the South sickened of poverty and racial violence, they looked to Chicago. Factories were opening by the dozens, and thousands of rural blacks came north hoping for jobs. By the end of the war, the city's South Side had so many black residents that people called it "Bronzeville."

The Bronzeville Attitude 

If you lived in Bronzeville, you could go to black banks, shop in black stores, vote for black politicians. You could strut down broad avenues, dressed to the teeth, showing off what they called "The Attitude." You could point with pride to Joe Louis, the boxing champion, and Muddy Waters, the master of rhythm and blues.

But you also couldn't live outside the ghetto. Starting in 1917, realtors made "restrictive covenants," vowing privately not to sell houses in white neighborhoods to black families. When blacks tried to move beyond Bronzeville, whites used violence to keep them in. In 1951, a mob burned down an entire building to evict its single black resident.

Closed in by white neighborhoods, Bronzeville quickly grew overcrowded. One-family apartments were split into three tiny "kitchenettes." Everyone went down the hall to use the toilet — if the plumbing worked. Owners did not have to repair their buildings because city inspectors could be bribed. And no one stopped them from raising the rents.

High-rise public housing was the government's solution to the housing crisis. But these projects did nothing to fight residential segregation; by 1950, Chicago officials had decided to build low-income housing only in the black ghetto.

To the people living there, it seemed that there was no way out. Blacks were cut off from the best paying jobs; in 1965, for example, they held only 5 percent of the high-paying positions for trained professionals. On the other end of the scale, laborers were faced with layoffs as hundreds of factories in the city closed during the 1950s and 60s.

By the 1960s, residents of the ghettos were boiling with rage. "They not let us in, we be OUT," one gang leader said. In 1965, the projects exploded. When white firemen ran over a black women in a West Side ghetto, the residents went on a rampage. They attacked the two sources of power that whites had over them — the police and the white-owned stores — by putting "Soul Brother" stickers on their windows. Even more violent riots occurred in 1966 and 1968. Each had a different spark, but the ghetto residents in all cases felt they were rebelling against an unfair system.

The "system" did little to convince them otherwise. During the 1968 riot following Martin Luther King's death, Mayor Richard Daley gave his police orders to "shoot to kill." Daley also tried to pacify angry blacks with welfare programs.

But many ghetto residents were tired of favors. They wanted to own their own stores, have black policemen, and elect black leaders. Their successes were few and far between. In Chicago, and in many other northern cities, blacks and whites remain as divided today as they were in the decade of the great riots.

  • Part of Collection:
  • Subjects:
    African American History, Cities and States, Civics and Government, Equality, Fairness, Justice, African American, Individuals, Groups, Institutions, Tolerance and Acceptance, Prejudice and Tolerance Experiences
  • Skills:
    Social Studies