Response to Tension: A Brief History of the Commission on Human Relations | Feature | Chicago Reader

Response to Tension: A Brief History of the Commission on Human Relations 

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Holding the victim's hand and attempting to educate the community have been two of the primary activities of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations since it was established by Mayor Edward J. Kelly as the Mayor's Committee on Race Relations in 1945. Back then, racial tensions were rising in Chicago and throughout the country; there had been severe clashes in several cities and in June 1943 a major riot in Detroit.

Responding to calls for workers in defense plants during World War II, thousands of blacks had come north to cities that didn't welcome them. Though a black community had existed peacefully in Chicago since post-Civil War days, their swelling numbers in the early 40s changed the equation.

Fearful that Chicago might be next to erupt in a race war, Mayor Kelly created a committee of community leaders, who in turn hired a small staff to seek the sources of racial fires and douse them. In 1947, Mayor Martin Kennelly converted the committee to a full-fledged Chicago Commission on Human Relations; but its primary function was to react, just as the police did, to the racial conflict that erupted steadily over the next few years. Very little was done to get at the causes of the conflict--the barriers that were erected to prevent blacks from joining the mainstream--in housing, jobs, and education. While the CHR was putting out local fires as they occurred, the city was "containing" the black community by building high-rise housing within the ghettos.

Over the years, the mandate of the commission was gradually expanded. It attempted to enforce the 1963 Chicago Fair Housing Ordinance and to win compliance with antidiscrimination laws. When the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 led to riots on the west side, the CHR tried to help the police restore order. The commission established a hot line as a clearinghouse for information and recorded over 5,000 calls from worried Chicagoans.

Yet the CHR continued to have a small staff and an essentially low profile. It was not a vital force in the city. In 1968, the so-called Harvey Report, the commission's first formal self-evaluation, recommended that the CHR begin to take a more aggressive role in city affairs; as a consequence several neighborhood offices were set up and the commission's visibility increased. Thanks to the CHR, in 1973 Chicago removed 481 firms from the list of companies eligible to receive city contracts because of their discriminatory hiring practices. But the powers of the agency did not include any other means of enforcing the law.

Jane Byrne's transition team recommended "new staffing, a broader mission, and some real power" for the CHR. Nevertheless, in 1980 the quixotic mayor all but dismantled the not very effective agency, moving the fair-housing section into the Department of Housing and largely abandoning the CHR's investigations into discrimination and its initiatives to reduce racial tension. The budget was cut drastically and the staff floundered. Gwen Rattliff, who was hired in 1980 as an education specialist, says, "We had no direction. A handful of us literally made up things to do to keep busy. The director had us working with dropouts and gangs doing self-esteem workshops and stress workshops for employers."

While Harold Washington did increase the commission's budget, he was notably unsuccessful in his first term at putting teeth into the commission. There was talk of his plans to enlarge and empower the commission in his second term, when he was supported by a majority in the City Council, but Clarence Wood says that Washington didn't place much stock in the CHR because "he was the commission." Because he was Chicago's first black mayor, Wood says, his was the bully pulpit where racial harmony could be preached, his the ear tuned to complaints of discrimination.

We'll never know what Washington might have done. It has fallen to a white mayor from the south side to finally push through the City Council a human rights ordinance with teeth.

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