Twenty years ago, Oak Park took its bold integration initiatives on the road to Ferguson, Missouri for the annual Oak Park Exchange Congress. This was our pioneering village’s effort to link other American communities interested in actively fostering racial diversity and sharing ideas, successes and war stories from what was a lonely front line.
Ferguson, of course, is now center stage for the shooting death of young Michael Brown by a local police officer. Underpinning that grim incident, though, is the obvious disconnect of a community that is two-thirds black but has a power structure — city council, school board and police department — that is virtually all-white.
Oak Parkers who travelled to Ferguson in 1994 look back at a town where white flight was already well underway, where the initiative to nurture integration was not driven by the local government but by faith leaders and activists. Clearly it wasn’t enough.
The lesson for Oak Park is that, even 45 years into our experiment with racial integration, social and market forces remain opposed to diversity. Our police force did not diversify by accident. African-American principals, elected officials and social service CEOs are essential. Success comes with intentional efforts.