When the civil rights movement moved north to Chicago in the mid-1960s, a priest named Bernard Kleina felt compelled to get involved. The Chicago Freedom Movement, led in part by Martin Luther King Jr., protested unfair housing policies. Kleina, who was 30 years old at the time, decided to remove his collar, pick up his camera, and march. The photographs he took during that time are now part collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“This was really Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement’s entrée into…trying to make sure that this conversation was a national conversation,” says Rhea Combs, a photography curator at the African American History Museum. “They really talk about a moment that has been lost in a lot of conversations around civil rights,” she says about the photographs.
In Kleina’s images, protesters hold signs that say, “HOMES NOT PROJECTS.” Policeman in powder blue uniforms and helmets smile alongside the young, white men who threw rocks at protesters and attacked vehicles. King stands before a heap of microphones, preparing to address the crowd in a city that he hadn’t expected to be so hostile.
The Chicago Freedom Movement marked an important time during the civil rights era, when efforts shifted away from fighting southern Jim Crow segregation to northern cities where racism was more subtle and harder for King and others to combat. “The internal politics in Chicago works against him. He’s sort of lost outside of his element,” says Harry Rubenstein, a curator and the chair of the political history department at the National Museum of American History. “In many ways it showed the deep racial divisions in the north that the earlier civil rights movement never faced.”
Rubenstein grew up in Chicago and remembers how racial, religious and class lines divided the city. “A city like Chicago could be highly segregated,” he says, “and these are fairly hard lines to cross and in some ways much harder than the lines in the south.”
Despite the backlash from white communities, historians say the events in Chicago led to the Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The act went into effect one week after King’s assassination.
Balancing his lives as priest and activist wasn’t easy for Kleina. His parish of several thousand, situated in a stone building 25 miles west of Chicago, was divided in its support for his political beliefs. “The bishop of the diocese always had a problem with so many things that I was doing,” Kleina says. The wakeup call came when Kleina realized that many of the people who opposed fair housing were fellow Catholics. “I would be walking in the march and young people with St. Rita and St. Leo T-shirts would be throwing rocks and bottles and cherry bombs, and I’m thinking, there’s something wrong here.”
In 1968, the year of King’s assassination and the Civil Rights Act, Kleina left the church to work full-time on housing initiatives. He became director of HOPE Fair Housing Center and spent the subsequent decades taking housing providers and county officials to court over what he claimed were exclusionary housing practices. Those court battles helped Kleina gain a reputation as “the most disliked man in DuPage County.”
Kleina’s photographs are important because they are some of the only known color photographs of King in Chicago. “They tended to use more black and white for news coverage and general reportage,” says David Haberstich, a photography curator at the American History Museum’s Archives Center.
Kleina photographed in color for a simple reason—that was how he always shot. Decades later, the technique has proved valuable. “When you look at some of the black and white [photos], at least for younger people, they think, oh that was way back in the Middle Ages,” Kleina says, “and so my photographs, I think, are a little bit more relevant for a younger audience.”
“It’s my hope that the collection of photos will help people better understand the struggle for civil and human rights in Chicago and throughout the country,” he says. “The struggle for civil rights continues and we still have a long way to go.”
The rest of Kleina’s images are available online. Combs says that a portion of the collection will also appear in the upcoming photo book, Through the African American Lens: Double Exposure, from the African American History Museum.