At the Bottom of the Empire: Homelessness, Housing Injustice, and Jesse Jackson’s Call to “Eradicate Poverty”

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“The bottom of the Empire,” was Reverend Jesse Jackson’s description of who Martin Luther King was seeking to serve with his politically revolutionary ministry of the 1960s. Jackson was standing in the Reverend Martin Luther King Legacy Apartments on the West Side of Chicago to give a press conference on, what would have been, King’s 93rd birthday, January 15, 2022. Joining Jackson were representatives from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Illinois Union for the Homeless. The city of Chicago has transformed the lobby of the King Legacy apartment building into a small museum, showcasing the governmental-capital conspiracy that created the “ghetto.” Through decades of redlining and other discriminatory lending practices, public infrastructural programs to preserve segregation, police enforcement of residential borders, and “neighborhood covenants” among white homeowners and landlords to never sell or rent to Blacks, Northern cities became white fiefdoms.

The Great Migration occurred when Black Americans fled the state sanctioned terrorism and apartheid of Jim Crow and mass lynching, hoping to find freedom and opportunity outside the Confederacy. While cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit certainly offered marginal legal and economic improvements, they also introduced new networks of oppression – the loan officer eager to deny every Black applicant, the hiring manager evaluating every job seeker according to skin pigmentation, and the armed defender of Empire prepared to punish any Black dissenter with the nightstick or smoking gun. If a Black family managed to overcome the odds of oppression, and seriously consider moving into a “white” neighborhood, they would receive a visit from a community representative. As Lorraine Hansberry brilliantly captured in her classic play about a Black family attempting to integrate a Chicago block, A Raisin in the Sun, the white representative would smile as he makes the nature of his threat clear: You are not wanted, and if you try to move here, we will make your life uncomfortable.

In late 1965, Martin Luther King, acting on the advice of Jackson and the Chicago Freedom Movement, a coalition of organizations fighting for fair housing, decided to spotlight the Union variety of white supremacy by temporarily staying in a slum tenement in one of Chicago’s most neglected and exploited neighborhoods. King and his family found, and introduced a formerly disinterested media, to housing units with asbestos, no running water, appliances that did not work, stairs that collapse, rats running through the hallways and sneaking into the furniture, and a rancid and infectious colony of insects.

“The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society,” King said, “Negroes live in them, but they do not make them, any more than a prisoner makes a prison.” The “vicious system” that King identified and sought to dismantle included all of its leading institutions – both the instruments of capital and the iterations of the State. During his forceful condemnation of the Vietnam War in an speech at Riverside Church in New York, King described the need to conquer the “triplets of evil” – “racism, militarism, and materialism.” All three were on stark and hideous display in the Chicago slums – the racism of making Blacks prisoners to subhuman conditions, the materialism of white society profiting from Black misery, and the militarism that would come in the domestic form of police brutality, and the international crime of drafting young men of all races, but disproportionately Black, into the military to fight an unjust war in Vietnam. From the bomb crater in Hanoi to the burning cross in Birmingham, and stretching to the slum of Chicago, the brutal devastation of, what King called, a “thing oriented society” was revealing itself.

During one of the conversations that I had with Revered Jesse Jackson for my book, I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters, he said that the resistance he and other protestors faced in the South Side of Chicago, during King’s stay in the slums, was the worst they had ever confronted. While marching for fair housing laws, Jackson remembers, “We never saw hatred, not even in the Deep South, as severe as what we encountered in Chicago with the ethnic, Catholic whites.” He explained that in Alabama, for example, the fear was always that the Ku Klux Klan or the police themselves, as in Selma, would turn violent on the protestors. In Chicago, it was as if the entire white majority was overcome by wicked mania, acting out their psychosis without shame or restraint. Ordinary civilians, from school teachers to auto mechanics, were charging the marchers, attempting to intimidate and assault them. The violence was so shocking that King cancelled a second march planned for the nearby suburb of Cicero. Richard Daley, then-mayor of Chicago, was hardly an ally, nor was he an opponent of political violence. Three years later, he would distinguish himself by giving a “shoot to kill” order to police during the riots following King’s assassination in 1968. Daley, a Democrat, was the kind of “law and order” fascist that President Nixon, and later, President Trump would lionize and emulate in an effort to demolish the promise of multiracial democracy.

Reverend Martin Luther King convinced Daley to adopt a number of fair housing policies, but it proved merely a nominal victory. Daley did not fund or authorize the enforcement of his promises, and Chicago, like most cities, did not make any progress on housing until the federal government forced its hand with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which “prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, or sex.” While more effective than Daley’s empty promises, the federal law still failed to prevent racist and segregationist assaults on Black, Latino, and Native aspirations of citizenship. Redlining persisted throughout the 1990s, and even as recently as 2008, Black applicants for home mortgages, regardless of respective qualifications, were far likelier to receive disastrous sub-prime loans than white applicants.

In the brilliant and important new book, White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality, Georgetown law professor, Sheryll Cashin, identifies and condemns three methods of white supremacy at work throughout the United States: boundary maintenance, opportunity hoarding in the form of commercial exclusion and educational apartheid, and stereotype-driven surveillance.

A young and precocious Jesse Jackson confronted these complex mechanisms of oppression, alienation, and injustice as the director of Operation Breadbasket, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference campaign that, in 1971, Jackson morphed into an independent organization, Operation PUSH. As acting president of PUSH, Jackson, his staff and volunteers initiated a series of consumer boycotts, protests, and media efforts to strike a blow against the apartheid economy of Chicago. Even businesses in Black neighborhoods often refused to hire Blacks for anything beyond menial labor, trade unions routinely denied admission for Black workers, and grocery and retail stores would not stock products from Black-owned companies. PUSH’s project was successful beyond most observers’ expectations. Blacks secured thousands of jobs, and millions of dollars in ancillary income through product placement and entrepreneurship made possible only because of PUSH’s pressure on banks and other lending institutions to grant commercial loans irrespective of race. Due to PUSH’s triumphs, Chicago became the 1970s and ‘80s epicenter of Black banking and media. Jackson would take his economic efforts national, managing to fight the racism of major companies, and negotiate deals on the behalf of Black workers and consumers with General Motors, Burger King, and other multinational corporations. He also effectively mediated disagreements between public unions and their host cities, most especially in Chicago when the firefighters union almost bifurcated by race. Jackson convinced them that creating multiple unions would only dilute their power as workers against a municipal government aiming to cut their salaries and benefits.

It was not the failures, but the victories of PUSH that taught Jackson the most crucial of political truths: No amount of private successes could transform a public system working against the interests of poor and working people. Corporate capitalism, and government that acts at its behest, would continue to enrich the few, while immiserating the many.

“If you have a size nine foot, you aren’t going to fit into a size six shoe,” Jackson said during one of our conversations, “There is nothing wrong with your foot. There is something wrong with the structure into which you are trying to fit it. So, the structure determines your placement and movement, or inability to do either.”

Democracy, Jackson came to believe, offered the means to transform the “tyranny” of “corporate structures” through governmental imposition and reformation. “We are dealing with public districts versus private territories,” Jackson articulated as contrast between laws that are, at least ostensibly, open to public inspection and revision, and the impenetrable authority of capital. “You can inherit a company,” Jackson told me while talking about the “unfairness” of capitalism, “You cannot inherit a congressional district.”

When Jackson brought his leadership and organizational acuity to bear on the political system, Operation PUSH bolstered progressive Black candidates for mayoral and congressional offices. The Democratic Party’s refusal to join their most active constituency in supporting Harold Washington’s run for Chicago mayor led to Jackson declaring his candidacy for president in 1984, and a second campaign in 1988. Ushering millions of first time voters into the party, Jackson galvanized a racially diverse coalition of supporters with a platform of Medicare for all, tuition free higher education, paid family leave, full employment through massive infrastructural projects, a public development bank, and groundbreaking support for gay rights. Despite acting as a docent to expand and diversify a stale and languid political party, and finishing second to nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988, powerful Democrats plotted the destruction of Jackson’s movement, beginning with the creation of the centrist Democratic Leadership Committee – an organization Jackson christened, “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” The corporate capture of the party culminated with the coronation of Bill Clinton, who presided over the obliteration of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the deregulation of banks and telecommunications, and approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

It is the bipartisan demolition of the welfare state, obstinance toward an agenda of social democracy, and constant castigation of socialism as “tyranny” that brought Jackson back to the Martin Luther King Legacy apartments, 57 years after his initial visit. “Poverty is not only an economic failure. It is a moral disgrace,” Jackson said from the podium.

“There are still millions of ‘working poor,’” Jackson continued before punctuating the statistic with repetition of the words, “moral disgrace.” Referring to a 2019 study from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Jackson offered another set up for his refrain, “There are nearly 60,000 homeless people on the streets of Chicago. Moral disgrace.”

Targets for Jackson’s opprobrium included Donald Trump, who the civil rights leader charged with “resurrecting the ideology of Jefferson Davis,” but also the bashful Democratic Party. “Biden should stop meeting with Manchin and Sinema,” Jackson advised while referring to the two right wing, obstructionist Senators within the Democratic majority, “It only benefits their egos. Instead, he should call for massive marches of poor and working people in Arizona and West Virginia.”

The “moral disgrace” of oppression and privation in the world’s wealthiest county, even as undertaxed billionaires enlarge their coffers by the trillions, implicates the economic system of profit maximization at the expense of human life, and the political system that acts as its shield.

It was as recent as October that Jackson, and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, applied sufficient pressure on city, state, and federal officials to intervene on behalf of the residents of Concordia Place apartments on the South Side of Chicago. The public housing complex subjected its inhabitants to daily torture – asbestos, mold, rat infestation, unreliable appliances and faucets, and as if structural and environmental abuses were not enough – routine sexual harassment against women tenants from roving security guards.

The public status of the housing complex is partially deceptive, because even though the apartments are taxpayer funded, the Chicago Housing Authority and HUD have outsourced management to Capital Realty – a private real estate firm guilty of similar violations against the law, and fundamental human rights, in Washington D.C., and other cities. Rainbow/PUSH convinced the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia L. Fudge, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, to meet with residents, and pledge millions of dollars for repair and renovations.

“We want Concordia to become a model for public housing,” Jackson declared, but also struck a blow against anyone so complacent or delusional to believe that the squalor of its units is aberrant, “There are Concordia’s everywhere.”

The universality of Concordia delineates a toxic ecology of corporate capitalism and government addicted to austerity. Still the only developed country that does not guarantee basic services, such as health care, paid family leave, and high quality education, to all of its citizens, the US has veered so far to the right that even formerly mundane measures, like funds for the maintenance of physical infrastructure, are fodder for acrimonious political debate.

A few hours after Jackson concluded his remarks on January 15th, Donald Trump headlined a fascist cult ritual in Florence, Arizona. While Jackson articulated the urgency of “eradicating poverty,” Trump received a standing ovation for defending the domestic terrorists of the January 6th attack on the Capitol, and for telling the insane and dangerous lie that public officials are withholding COVID-19 vaccines from white people.

The contrast between Jackson and Trump is iridescent, and it is as ubiquitous as dilapidated and filthy apartment units in poor neighborhoods. While Jackson speaks about justice for those at the “bottom of the Empire,” Trump personifies and projects the crush of imperial power against the lungs and hopes of its inhabitants.

Martin Luther King spoke at the Chicago Freedom Festival in 1966, as part of his Chicago Freedom Movement campaign. During his address, he called on anyone within earshot to adopt a position of “divine dissatisfaction.”

“Let us be dissatisfied until every handcuff of poverty is unlocked,” King implored his audience. “Let us be dissatisfied until race baiters disappear from the political arena…Let us be dissatisfied until men everywhere are imbued with a passion for justice.”

Recalling his early days with King, and applying them to the converging crises of widespread poverty and emergent fascism, Jackson offered a simple phrase that one can only hope shoots through the silence and passivity of the general public: “We need to come alive again.”

David Masciotra is the author of five books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (Bloomsbury, 2020).