by Sally Wendkos Olds
A white civil-rights activist looks back.
This past July, I flew to Chicago to attend the 50th anniversary of the North Shore Summer Project, a Fair Housing effort I joined in 1965 to challenge the practices that perpetuated housing segregation. This commemoration led me to look back even further in time.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of being a student at Charles C. Lea Elementary school, in the Philadelphia neighborhood now known as University City. In the mid-1940s, my classmates included a few “colored” children (African-American wouldn’t come into use for some 40 years), but I never thought to wonder why none of them lived on my street. Later, at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, I became friendly with several “Negro” girls, but none of them lived in my neighborhood, either, and aside from a couple of evenings when my mother invited some of them to dinner at our apartment, I didn’t see any of them outside of school. At Penn in the 1950s, I can’t remember any students of color. No wonder: our 1955 yearbook shows only two black women and three black men in our entire graduating class. A snapshot of the times.
I never considered myself prejudiced, but looking back, it mortifies me to realize how blind I was to the barriers that separated people by skin color. It wasn’t until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s that I became conscious of them. The violence down South horrified me. But as a Manhattan mother of three children under six, I didn’t feel I could go to Mississippi to fight for justice. When I heard about the New York-based National Committee against Discrimination in Housing, I realized that I could work for change in my own backyard.
New York had a fair housing law—but if people didn’t apply for housing, the law meant nothing. I joined the staff of the NCDH and wrote “Neighborhood Profiles” describing areas of the five boroughs where few minorities lived, and which many nonwhite home seekers knew little or nothing about. We distributed these profiles and followed up with home-seeking families. We tested the law by posing as white applicants for the same housing that rejected non-whites. Whenever minority applicants were refused housing, my anger helped me get through the process of lying to make my profile sound like theirs, just as it helped me overcome my nervousness about testifying in court. I became more and more incensed that people should be treated this way.
Late in 1964, my family moved from Manhattan to Glencoe, a northern lakeside suburb of Chicago, where I met Bill Moyer, a Philadelphian working with the American Friends Service Committee. Bill was a mild-mannered social worker (unrelated to the journalist Bill Moyers) who had a genius for organizing. “There’s just as much racism in Chicago as there is in Mississippi,” he told me. “But white people—even liberals—don’t realize it. We want to make them see it.”
His idea was to launch an Open Housing movement in 13 almost-all-white suburbs along the shores of Lake Michigan by emulating the Freedom Marches in the South. He named this 1965 effort the North Shore Summer Project, after the Mississippi Summer Project.
“Down South,” Bill told me in his soft-spoken way, “the movement is focused on voting rights. But these North Shore suburbs don’t have to deny black people the right to vote—they just deny them the right to live here.
“Only two of these suburbs, Evanston and Glencoe, have real black populations,” he added. “They also have real ghettoes to keep them in.”
The Quakers, Bill explained, wanted to expand white people’s knowledge of racism—which, as my own childhood had shown, was lacking. “Black people don’t have to learn about prejudice; they’re living it.” Bill’s sense of mission was contagious, and I enthusiastically agreed to serve as volunteer public relations director.
It was a heady time. I set to work alongside representatives from the worlds of religion, civic involvement, and social activism. Because these suburbs were almost totally white, we had black committee members from only two towns: the Reverend Emory Davis, from Evanston; and Gerry Washington, a Glencoe mother whose daughters went to school with and played with mine. We met with realtors, conducted vigils outside their offices, and distributed literature about their discriminatory practices. We marched and we sang. We recruited college students to interview North Shore residents, who declared overwhelmingly that they would welcome nonwhite neighbors, despite realtors’ contentions that they were merely following homeowners’ wishes by refusing to show houses to nonwhite home-seekers. Our major coup was bringing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Winnetka, the whitest of these suburbs, to speak to a crowd of 10,000 on the Village Green.
I issued weekly news releases, was quoted in the local press—and received hate mail. Instead of intimidating me, it assured me that our efforts were being noticed and inspired me to become even more committed. (Of course, hate mail in Glencoe was not as scary as hate mail in Biloxi.) Our final event was a six-mile march from our NSSP Freedom Center in Winnetka to the Evanston-North Shore Board of Realtors, where on August 29 we presented a summary of the project’s findings at a rally, followed by an all-night vigil. Then the NSSP, which from its conception had been a time-limited effort, disbanded. Our students went back to school, our AFSC sponsorship ended, and most of the volunteers moved on to other forms of activism.
Soon afterwards my family moved away from Glencoe, and I lost touch with my fellow volunteers. Last spring I reconnected with Carol Kleiman, another white activist who hailed from Philadelphia. Carol reminisced about telling Dr. King that she wanted to move from Glenview to an integrated area. “No,” he told her. “Stay where you are. Lance the boil.”
The “boil” was segregation, and a few results of its “lancing” can be seen in activities we helped set in motion—even if our efforts were only the beginning of an arduous process.
Although the NSSP failed Harriette and McLouis Robinet (a physicist then teaching at the University of Illinois), who were not able to buy a house on the North Shore and suffered humiliation while looking, they were energized to continue their search and very soon succeeded in buying in the previously all-white western suburb of Oak Park, where they still live. Harriette wrote about her family’s experience for Redbook in 1968, launching a career as a writer of award-winning multicultural historical fiction for children.
David and Mary James’s North Shore story was a more immediately encouraging success. The first African American to buy in Winnetka, David, a lawyer and former Tuskegee airman, founded a program for suburban and inner-city children, which is now a day camp for 7- to 12-year-olds.
Yet it remains infuriating to learn how hard it was for so many good people to do something as simple as shelter their families. Fortified by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Winnetka’s Open Communities has extended its mission beyond trying to change attitudes among white communities; it now works to influence housing policy and enforce the law. At the anniversary celebration it sponsored, a crowd of about 1,000—many of whom had not been born in 1965—gathered on the same green where Dr. King had addressed the largest crowd ever to assemble there, and pledged to continue the work. The bronze marker memorializing him, installed with money raised by Winnetka schoolchildren, gleamed in the sunlight, heralding a brighter future.
But the wheels of justice still grind exceedingly slow. Even though the Fair Housing Act has been law for almost two generations, many brokers have simply gone underground. The North Shore suburbs are still almost entirely white. It’s disappointing, half a century later, that there’s still a need to follow up our 1965 push to open closed borders. In moments of pessimism, I sometimes wonder whether our efforts had any impact at all. But then I remind myself that change did occur—and that even when an ideal is not fully realized, efforts to advance it are not in vain. Although the numbers of nonwhite residents in these suburbs are still small, they’re larger than they used to be.
The biggest change was in us mostly-white volunteers, because we learned from our educators: the black volunteers and home-seekers whose futures truly hung in the balance. Working in the vastly different society that was the United States in the mid-1960s, we morphed from white liberals to white activists. Many of us went on to work for change in many facets of society, including but not limited to racial equality. Do-gooder has become something of a skeptical sobriquet these days, but it’s a badge I’m proud to wear. We did do some good—for ourselves, no doubt, but also for 13 communities, and several families whose profound fortitude deserved all the support their daunting mission required. I remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”