Though such was not the case during his lifetime, it’s uncontroversial today to note that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an American hero of the civil rights movement, a hero whose birth will be celebrated by Americans on Monday, Jan. 15, with the national Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. More than perhaps any other American, King has come to represent peace — which is just one reason why this image of him brought to his knees in Chicago is so shocking. The story behind the image makes it all the more so.
Though King’s early, more famous efforts for the civil rights movement were concentrated in the American South, from the Montgomery bus boycotts in the late 1950s to his work in Mississippi with the Freedom Riders, this photograph was not taken there. Instead, it dates to a period during which he experienced discrimination that was, in some ways, worse — after his shift to focus on Northern cities after the Voting Rights Act was signed on Aug. 6, 1965.
The tipping point for the shift? “The explosion in Watts really captured the attention of Dr. King,” says James R. Ralph Jr., professor of history at Middlebury College and an author of The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North.
Yet Chicago seemed like a logical starting point for his efforts in the North, as King later wrote, because, “It is reasonable to believe that if the problems of Chicago, the nation’s second largest city, can be solved, they can be solved everywhere.” To raise awareness of poor living conditions for the city’s African Americans, he himself moved into an apartment in Chicago’s West Side neighborhood of Lawndale. “We don’t have wall-to-wall carpeting to worry about, but we have wall-to-wall rats and roaches,” the Chicago Tribune reported King saying shortly after he moved in on Jan. 26, 1966. King called for “the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums.”