Spring 1968

Opinion: Editorials

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Fifty years ago, April 1968, Oak Park was on edge. To many it certainly felt like a precipice. Austin was already upended by incomprehensibly rapid white flight. 

Historically, Oak Park was a middle and upper-middle class white community. Austin was a city neighborhood long filled with Irish and Greek, German and Italian families. Now Oak Park and Austin had moved to new terrain. Over the 20 years following World War II, the West Side, moving block-by-block from east to west, had resegregated. Whites fled, and a burgeoning black population arriving from the South was shoehorned into their place. 

The racial change was stunning, devastating any semblance of community, and it was permitted, encouraged, and, largely controlled by a cynical white power base in government, real estate and banking. 

By the late 1960s, racial change was coursing through Austin — south to north — and there was an expectation by many that the city limit at Austin Boulevard was entirely permeable, that Oak Park would soon resegregate.

It was in that moment, hard to describe for its fears and intensity, that Oak Park's village government, and later its public schools, took dramatic and very controversial steps to test out possible paths toward the radical notion that a community could be racially integrated. Not in Mike Royko's definition of integration as the brief period marked from when the first black person moved in until the last white moved out, but in a long-term, genuine way.

And so in April 1968 Oak Park's Community Relations Commission and then its village board took up consideration of a local Open Housing ordinance. The federal government had just passed such a law as part of Lyndon Johnson's astounding Civil Rights victories. But the idea of a single suburban community passing Open Housing, effectively betting on integration, was unheard of, untested. 

A series of public meetings that spring laid bare all of Oak Park's fear and racism, all of its bold hopes and self-interest. Meetings overflowed at the old Village Hall at Lake Street and Euclid (now an apartment complex) and were shifted to the auditorium at OPRF High School. Demands were heard for a referendum on Open Housing. Trustees, knowing it would certainly be defeated, resisted and directly passed the measure. 

It was the first of many remarkable initiatives on fostering integration — everything from backing the Housing Center and its efforts to maintain demand by white people to come to Oak Park, while steering potential residents to avoid anticipated resegregation east of Ridgeland, to banning "for sale" signs, creating two junior highs and redrawing enrollment boundaries to racially balance the schools. 

And it was early in that month that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. On Thursday, April 4, early evening, the Lorraine Motel, there in support of striking black sanitation workers, Dr. King was killed while on the motel's balcony.

In our Austin Weekly News, Editor Michael Romain resurrects a West Side timeline as black residents move over the course of 12 hours from shock and reflection to confrontation with an unprepared and unsympathetic Chicago Police Department. By early afternoon Friday, core commercial strips on the West Side, Madison Street and Roosevelt Road, are being looted and burned.

In Oak Park, smoke from the West Side is plain to those gathered on front porches, the worries and fears over race are made more immediate, ties to West Side businesses frequented by Oak Parkers are severed and the connection is cemented that Oak Park's future of integration is only possible with aggressive separation from Austin, with Austin Boulevard becoming a physical and psychological barrier between these two sister communities.

Now it is a half century later. Oak Park's integration is real, imperfect and always fragile as race still divides in America and confounds us. Austin, despite often debilitating violence, has grown deep new roots as an African American community with vitality and purpose.

Here we are. Finally, on levels personal and institutional, connections are again being fostered between these two great neighbors. Does Oak Park have the will to humbly offer resources within Austin? Does Austin have the self-confidence to trust such offers of partnership?

This is the moment.

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