Hundreds of North Shore residents gathered on the Winnetka Village Green Sunday to rekindle the fight against housing injustice that drew thousands to the park in 1965 to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
The Justice Day 2015 rally both marked the 50th anniversary of King’s appearance and honored the activists whose work to end housing discrimination against blacks and Jews during the 1960s brought King to the North Shore three years before the federal Fair Housing Act was enacted.
“He actually slept in the basement of my synagogue, Beth Emet (in Evanston), because hotels in the area were not open to African Americans,” recalled U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston), one of the Justice Day speakers.
The campaign for housing justice, known as the North Shore Summer Project, was started by local residents, many of whom had participated in civil rights marches in the South and thought they should examine the discrimination taking place in their own communities.
They looked at the real estate practices that precluded blacks from being shown homes in white neighborhoods, or steered Jewish home buyers toward suburbs that were accepting of non-Gentiles.
After interviewing hundreds of home sellers and real estate agents, project participants released a critical report in August of 1965 refuting agents’ claims they were merely carrying out the wishes of home sellers.
When interviewed, 50 percent of home sellers indicated they would gladly sell their home to any qualified buyer brought by the agent, regardless of the buyer’s race, religion or national origin, according to the report. Only eight percent of the home sellers had asked for a restrictive listing, typically denoted in ads by the letters “ORTR,” meaning the owner was reserving the right to reject offers for any reason, even if the purchaser was offering the full asking price.
Organizers of Justice Day 2015, an initiative of Open Communities, hope to galvanize a new generation around a multi-year campaign, The Justice Project.
“There is a wonderful history here on the North Shore that I think most people don’t realize,” said Gail Schechter, executive director of Open Communities, a housing advocacy organization serving 16 north suburban communities. “There is a legacy for inclusion and diversity across the income spectrum, race, and religion — all of the different ‘isms’ that often serve to exclude people.”
The goal of The Justice Project is to inspire citizens and policymakers to create welcoming, inclusive and diverse communities. The project has created a list of “Principles of the Welcoming Community” to guide municipal officials and help citizens hold their leaders accountable. In relation to housing, a community is welcoming if it “offers a variety of housing alternatives to enable people within a wide range of incomes, family types or abilities to rent or own decent, safe and integrated places to live.”
The afternoon’s keynote speaker, Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, addressed the importance of fair housing toward achieving a just society.
“It is housing that will determine whether you have resources to retire on,” said Shelton, noting that for most Americans, home ownership is the means of accumulating wealth. “Housing determines where your kids go to school, how secure you are in your neighborhood and where you work. It is housing that makes so many decisions for us, economically and socially.”
Shelton lauded the use of fair housing testers in Illinois to determine whether landlords and lenders are adhering to the law when prospective renters seek an apartment or buyers apply for a mortgage.
Paul Soglin, now serving his eighth term as mayor of Madison, Wis., was a college intern for the North Shore Summer Project in the 1960s.
“When my parents returned from World War II, they were determined to ensure that the justice and fairness that they fought for around the world came back to the United States,” said Soglin, who was one of the Justice Day speakers.
“Those of us who were raised in the shadow of World War II actually believed that there could be fair, peaceful and equitable nations,” he continued, suggesting they perhaps underestimated how much work would remain to be done 50, 60 or 70 years later.
“While we see great strides made in terms of marriage for all people, these injustices continue whether we are talking about race, national origin or the tens of millions of people … unable to go to college because perhaps they arrived in this country when they were six months old, the children of caring parents who wanted a better life,” Soglin said.
Carol Kleiman, who was a syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist for 44 years, participated in the North Shore Summer Project and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. She was one of the featured speakers during the program Sunday.
Kleiman recalled that when she moved from Philadelphia to the Chicago area in 1961 and purchased a home in Mt. Prospect, she discovered a “whites-only” covenant in her real estate contract restricting any future sale.
“I sued the Realtor, who was also the mayor of Mt. Prospect, and I won,” Kleiman told the crowd. “The covenant was removed.”
Kleiman’s daughter, Cathy Bell Bartholomay of Kenilworth, brought her two sons, Charley, 12, and Joey, 14, to the Justice Day event to hear their grandmother speak.
“We couldn’t be more honored to be here today in memory of the risk she took for what she believed in at at time when it was unpopular and probably, at times, compromising to her own safety,” said Bell Bartholomay. “She chose to follow her passion as a social activist and a paramount believer in civil rights.”
A bronze marker at the Winnetka Village Green commemorates King’s appearance on July 26, 1965, with a quote from his address.
“History has presented us with a cosmic challenge,” King is quoted as saying. “We must now learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.”
The 16 communities served by Open Communities are Deerfield, Evanston, Glencoe, Glenview, Highland Park, Highwood, Kenilworth, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Northbrook, Northfield, Park Ridge, Skokie, Wilmette and Winnetka.