The Chicago Freedom Movement

How Baron Got Into the Chicago Freedom Movement

Hal Baron’s role within the Chicago Freedom Movement went beyond his formal title of “Research Director” for the Chicago Urban League (CUL). Baron traveled the city to present for—in his own estimation— 150 workshops about school segregation in Chicago. He was the main advisor to Edwin “Bill” Berry, the director of the CUL. Baron briefed Martin Luther King Jr. and other Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) activists who flocked to Chicago to fight racial segregation in the urban North on the structure and tactics of the Chicago political machine [1]. At the CUL, he wrote (or co-authored) studies on racial segregation in Chicagoland’s labor markets, business sector, public housing, and school systems. He hired young scholars to conduct research about how to desegregate Chicago’s school system, as well as energetic New Left activists from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to document racial segregation in the city’s public housing system. These included Richard Rothstein, Harriet Stulman, and Renny Davis.

Veterans of the Chicago Freedom Movement (CFM) remember Baron as a sort of “straight man.” He was viewed as trustworthy and dependable, no small feat in a social movement that was wracked by division—between labor organizers and businesspeople, Black Power advocates and non-violent pacifists—and important strategic disagreements about how to pursue desegregation in Chicago.

What was the Chicago Freedom Movement?

It is important to keep in mind what exactly the CFM was, or at least the origin of the term “Chicago Freedom Movement.” In 1961, a Chicagoan tapestry of religious, labor, business, professional, and community organizations formed into a coalition, the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). Their goal was to force the Chicago Board of Education to desegregate the city’s public school system and provide proper support for Black schoolchildren. The “big three” leaders were Al Raby, a Chicago schoolteacher, Arthur Brazier, an activist-preacher from Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, and Bill Berry, the president of the CUL. Raby, Brazier, and Berry corresponded with the Left, Center, and Right of the CCCO, respectively.

However, the CCCO was not quite the formal CFM. The formal beginning of the CFM, agreed upon by scholars of the civil rights movement was in 1964, three years after the founding of the CCCO. In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr.’s SCLC was reaching the end of its campaigns in the rural South. Friends of King from the industrial North had been writing to him for some time, critiquing his focus on de jure racial segregation in the United States. What about the slums, violence against Black people, and day-to-day forms of racial discrimination in the urban North? What about de facto segregation? Following King, experienced SCLC activists poured into Chicago, set on helping the CCCO complete its goal of public school desegregation and expanding the fight into other arenas.

There were deeper roots of the CFM that need to be acknowledged. After all, the CCCO and SCLC were not tightly-controlled top-down organizations. The basis for their work had been laid by emerging mass social movements and an emboldened Black political consciousness in the United States, some of whom were early participants in the CCCO. Charles Payne’s celebrated I’ve Got the Light of Freedom illustrates changes in Black working-class life in the Rural South after World War Two that set the foundations for the national Civil Rights movement. This was also true for the urban North, but it took a different form. Crucial precursors to the civil rights movement came from dissident Black doctors fighting segregation in metropolitan hospital systems. In a 2011 interview, Baron identified the United Packinghouse Workers, a radical Black union, as crucial pathbreakers for the civil rights and Black Power movements, creating a beachhead within the labor movement and Chicago’s civil society against racism. Baron also believed that the murder of Emmett Till, himself a Black Chicagoan, had unleashed Black political energies in the city that no formal organization could truly contain. In 1963, a school strike—where Black students refused to attend school in protest of conditions in predominantly Black public schools— was forced by parents and students, not the CCCO or CUL itself. When the Chicago chapter of the NAACP invited Chicago mayor (and machine boss) Richard J. Daley to speak at an anti-segregation rally in 1963, a large group of Black protestors blocked him from entering the rally.

Baron as Education Activist

By the time the Chicago Freedom Movement had begun, Baron was already an important advisor to Bill Berry. He was not simply a trusted advisor to Berry though, but also a friend. According to newspaper reports from the time, Baron was hired as a research assistant in 1961, while still a PhD student in economic history at the University of Chicago. By the end of 1962, he had been upgraded to “co-director” of the research department. By 1963, Baron was regularly appearing in Chicago’s major media outlets, perhaps most notably the Chicago Tribune, for quotes about new CUL research reports and notices for new speeches of Baron’s scheduled around Chicago. Newspapers across the county began quoting Baron and his research as early as 1963, likely due to the National Urban League’s director Whitney Young, who began publicizing the CUL research department’s dire estimates about future Black joblessness in urban America.

According to Baron’s recollection, after losing a teaching job that had been supporting him during his dissertation research, he heard that the CUL was looking for a new research director. He “cut a deal” with the CUL where he would work part-time for a year, and then eventually take over the research department. However, it is not entirely clear why Baron was seen as such a strong fit by the CUL leadership. While Baron was a social scientist, he was an economic historian: not a perfect match for the CUL, but not a terrible one either. According to interviews of Baron conducted by historian Nick Kryczka, Baron was focused on public education-related issues early on in his position, writing personal reports on education issues for Berry as early as 1961. During his time as a “junior college” (community college) instructor at Wright Junior College, Baron had built up connections with Chicago’s left-wing labor activist circuit, where he was already renowned as an anti-war and anti-McCarthyist organizer in Hyde Park. Another important anti-segregation activist connection was Paula Baron—Hal’s wife—a teacher in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side, already brewing as a battleground over school segregation in Chicago. It is possible that these connections were a major asset to Baron’s credibility as an education researcher for the CUL, but there is no way to know for sure.

As for Baron’s relatively fast rise to the top of the CUL research department, events surrounding the CUL may have been responsible. In 1961, the CCCO formed a real campaign to desegregate the Chicago Public Schools that was gaining momentum. Baron may have been pushed to the front of the CUL due to his specialization in education reform.

There is one factor that was almost certainly significant for Baron being hired into the CUL and quickly gaining credibility as a leader: Bill Berry liked him. Berry’s energy and pluckiness are audible in Studs Terkel’s 1968 interview with the CUL director, available online. He may have been more conservative than the other two leaders of the CCCO, but he actively pushed the CUL’s work beyond the horizon of the CUL’s board of directors’ predominantly white, paternalistic attitude toward Black progress. As historian Nick Kryczka described it, Baron kept the CUL’s research department in “attack mode” throughout his and Berry’s tenure [10]. There was a clear compatibility between one another’s comportment throughout the 1960s. However, Baron also had to “work on” Berry from time-to-time. It was widely acknowledged that Berry was the most conservative of the three main leaders of the CCCO (it is also possible that CCCO members from outside of the CUL did not understand the immense pressure from the CUL’s board that Berry had to deal with).

There is strong (but circumstantial) evidence that Berry and Baron worked together to perform a difficult balancing act throughout their respective times at the CUL. In an early review of the CUL’s civil rights work in the 1960s, Arvarh Strickland noted that Berry had to badger the CUL board into supporting the CUL’s participation in the CCCO and CFM. He frequently pointed out that Black radicals in Chicago were making big demands for institutional desegregation in the city’s institutions, and that if the CUL were perceived as dragging their feet on supporting the emerging civil rights movement it would lose its leadership role. Curiously, Baron was pitching a similar line to the public in media interviews at the same time, “threatening” readers with the possibility that the CUL would be displaced as a movement leader if the white public did not take a meaningful stance against segregation. Baron was one of the radicals in question, albeit quietly. Among people to the “left” of the CCCO, particularly those associated with industrial labor unions, it was understood that they could use Baron, a fellow leftie, to get Berry to “loosen up” and support aggressive protest tactics.

We don’t know whether Baron had any input on Berry’s brokering with the CUL board, but Baron did play his own balancing act with them. By 1964, the CUL had assembled a panel of businesspeople meant to pour resources into job development in Black communities. In 1965, Baron co-authored with Bennett Hymer The Negro Worker in the Chicago Labor Market. It was a methodical tour de force of racism in the Chicago region’s employment institutions and practices, broken down by gender, age, and industrial sector. Baron and Hymer’s clear aim was to show that segregation in the industrial Midwest’s employment structure was not simply a matter of moral inadequacy, as sympathetic businesspeople traditionally presumed. Racial segregation had a profound material impact on how work, consumption, and daily life operated in Chicago and Chicagoland. In turn, structural trends in the overall U.S. economy were not going to solve these problems. In fact, they would make them worse in the near future.

The Chicago Freedom Movement underwent multiple twists and turns, and can roughly be divided into a pre-CFM period, when the CCCO struggled to pursue school desegregation. The second period, starting in 1964, marks the beginning of the SCLC’s involvement, and the expansion of the movement into other policy arenas. Then, the CFM began to focus on political mobilization in Chicago’s Black community, ending in 1968. Baron played an important leadership role within the CUL for all three phases.

Back to Top
  1. Harold Baron, Interview by Mary Lou Finley and Pat Smith, December 2011.
  2. Richard Rothstein, in discussion with the author, February 2020.
  3. Don Rose (media outreach for the CCCO), in discussion with the author, July 2020; John McKnight (housing activist for the CCCO), in discussion with the author, December, 2019.
  4. The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North. Edited by Mary Lou Finley, Bernard Lafayette Jr., James R. Ralph Jr., and Pam Smith. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.
  5. Finley et. all, Chicago Freedom Movement, 2016.
  6. Finley et. all, Chicago Freedom Movement, 2016.
  7. Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
  8. Smith, David Barton. The Power to Heal: Civil Rights, Medicare, and the Struggle to Transform America’s Healthcare System. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2016; Smith, Pam.Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  9. Finley and Smith, "Interview," 2011.
  10. See the documentary “63’ Boycott” for an overview of the strike. URL
  11. Anderson, Alan B. and Pickering, George W. Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1986.
  12. Kryczka, N. (2019). "Selective Renewal: Choice, Community, and School in Post-Civil Rights Chicago." Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2019.
  13. “Learning the Ropes.” The Chicago Daily Defender. October 9th, 1961; “School Bias Sunday Topic on ‘Face It.’” The Chicago Daily Defender. Week of December 22nd-28th, 1962.
  14. “Urban League Official to Speak at Anniversary.” The Chicago Tribune. November 3rd, 1963.
  15. “9 Million Jobless Foreseen.” Pittsburgh Courier. December 28th, 1963; “Needed! An FEPC.” The Baltimore Afro-American. September 28th, 1963.
  16. Harold Baron, Interviewed by Lou Turner and Sundiata Cha-Jua, May 12, 2016.
  17. Kryzka, "Selective Renewal," 2019.
  18. Rose, "Interview," 2020.
  19. Kryzka, "Selective Renewal," 2019.
  20. "Edwin C. Berry (Bill) discusses civil rights. Part 1" Studs Turkel, Radio Studio, 1968.
  21. Smith, The Power to Heal, 2016.
  22. Strickland, A.E. "Urban League Adjustments to the ‘Negro Revolution’: A Chicago Study." Midcontinent American Studies Journal, 8. no. 1 (1967): 3-19.
  23. “Sees Fearsome Future as Rights Campaign Falters.” Cleveland Call and Post. November 16th, 1963.
  24. Rose, "Interview," 2020.
  25. Baron, Harold. and Hymer, Bennett. "The Negro Worker in the Chicago Labor Market." Chicago: The Chicago Urban League, 1965.
  26. Anderson and Pickering, Confronting the Color Line,1986.