NORTH LAWNDALE — The apartments at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. have come a long way since Martin Luther King Jr. first stepped inside 53 years ago.
On January 25, 1966, King and his wife, Coretta, were greeted by a broken door, dirt floors and an “overpowering” smell of urine, according to a 2002 biography. Fresh off their victory in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, King and his team were bringing their movement to “the heart of the ghetto” in Chicago, as he later wrote, to call attention to substandard housing.
At the same spot in 2016, Khalid Bilal flipped on the lights of a two-bedroom apartment and walked onto white shaggy carpet, quick to point out the energy-efficient hot water heater. Ducking into the first of two full bathrooms, he wiggled the water-saving toilet seat handle.
“You push it up for No. 1, down for No. 2,” said Bilal, the property manager of the 45-unit King Legacy Apartments. “It was designed like that, all green and everything.”
Bilal couldn’t put a number on the vacant apartment’s total area. But with a sprawling living room and a roomy kitchen, it looked well north of 1,000 square feet.
“I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t mind living here,” Bilal said. “It’s really a beautiful space.”
Though the King Legacy Apartments occupy the same spot where King lived during his Chicago campaign, the building is different. The slum King used as his base of operations was demolished in 1991, during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first term. Daley cut the ribbon on the glistening new development in April 2011, during the final days of his administration.
A U-shaped brick complex spanning the entire block between 15th and 16th streets, the building is home to two-bedroom, three-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments. Most are subsidized with CHA and federal housing vouchers, but a handful of market-rate units are scattered throughout.
Reminders of King and his movement abound: The inside and outside walls are covered with news photographs of King in Chicago, and the first floor is home to a small museum full of artifacts and exhibits on the fight for fair housing.
At the time of its opening, Daley lauded the complex as a meaningful boost to the struggling neighborhood.
“Chicago has made much progress in many areas since Dr. King lived in this neighborhood, although much remains to be done,” Daley said in 2011. “But our schools are better. Our neighborhoods are stronger. And we have moved past the years when racial politics and rhetoric divided our city.”
It was a reminder of the looming legacy King left in Chicago, but also highlighted the ways in which little has changed in the half-century since the leader launched what he called the Chicago Freedom Movement.
Pivoting the civil rights movement toward a goal of economic justice for African-Americans in northern cities, the movement aimed to “eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment,” as King put it.
Discriminatory housing practices like restrictive covenants had been outlawed by 1966, but government redlining kept entire black communities from securing mortgages,and property owners used predatory contracts to hem black families into crumbling houses at unfavorable rates. Housing discrimination in North Lawndale during the mid-20th century was highlighted by author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his popular 2014 Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations.”
After seven months of marches, rallies and speeches demanding fair and affordable housing for black Chicagoans — all while King lived in the shabby North Lawndale apartment — then-Mayor Richard J. Daley signed onto a “summit agreement” with King, generally bowing to his demands. Daley vowed to take steps against discrimination, and in return he asked the civil rights crusader to lead his band of rabble-rousers out of the city.
A year later, the elder Daley had done nothing to hold up his end of the deal, and King declared their agreement “a sham and a batch of false promises.” The Chicago Freedom Movement went down as one of the least-successful chapters of the civil rights movement.
More than fifty years later, Lawndale still ranks among the most poverty-racked neighborhoods in the city.
But all that doesn’t mean King’s time in Chicago didn’t bring about real change.
The Chicago Freedom Movement was widely credited for inspiring the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made it illegal to restrict access to housing on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law on April 11, 1968, a week after King’s assassination.
And even though huge swathes of the city remain segregated and dogged by systemic poverty, it’s hard to deny that the overall livability of low-income housing has taken huge leaps since King’s time.
“You’ve gotta remember, back in the early ’60s, you had slumlords operating all these big projects that didn’t even have hot water — ‘cold water flats,’ they were called,” said Bilal, 63, who’s lived in North Lawndale his whole life. “So housing in this area really improved to a degree after ’68, when [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] stepped in and you started to have federal subsidies. Things like that really helped.”
They helped Maggie Collins-Glover, 65, a retired construction worker who moved into the King Legacy Homes a few months after they opened in 2011. She said she doesn’t remember much about King’s Chicago visit, but his memory pervades daily life inside the apartments.
“We’re talking about a man who stood for a higher purpose, who was admired by millions — it makes living here a beautiful experience,” Collins-Glover said, a small portrait of King gazing down at her two-bedroom apartment. “I think he would have been proud if he could see it today.”
There was still much about the neighborhood King could hardly be proud of, she added. The once-vibrant 16th Street, alive with restaurants and beauty parlors, has become a hollow corridor of vacant lots and blighted homes. And although the immediate area surrounding the apartments is relatively safe, she said, “you can go two blocks east of here and see somebody lying in the street.”
Still, for Bilal, the apartments themselves are a moving reminder of everything the civil rights movement achieved.
“I still get kind of lightheaded when I think about how he and his family were right here, trying to get quality affordable housing for black people,” Bilal said. “And here it is — you can see it, touch it, smell it — it’s a manifestation of his dream.”
This story was originally published by DNAinfo Chicago in 2016.