This year, there have been ceremonies throughout Chicago commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement — the strategic alliance launched in January 1966 between Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and a broad coalition of local activists called the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO).
Earlier this month, there was a ribbon-cutting for a memorial in Marquette Park, where King and hundreds of others marched in August 1966. They were pelted with rocks and spat upon while attempting to raise awareness about the city’s racism — which, through numerous discriminatory real estate practices, relegated blacks to substandard housing and squalid living conditions in ghettos on the city’s West and South sides.
Fifty years after the movement launched, Marquette Park is a very different place, but not in the way King may have envisioned. The area surrounding the park is roughly equal halves black and Hispanic, and less than 5 percent white. Most of the city’s all-black areas — such as the North Lawndale community where King famously moved into a slum apartment in January 1966 to put a spotlight on urban blight — remain impoverished.
If any place deserves a monument to the movement’s success, local housing experts say, it’s Oak Park — one of the few communities that has found a way to maintain stable racial diversity.
“I’d be so bold as to say if King were alive today, he’d talk about Oak Park as an example of what he was marching for,” said Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, one of the organizations at the forefront of maintaining stable diversity here.
“King was marching for open housing in Chicago and for government to get involved in promoting housing opportunities for all people,” Breymaier said. “Chicago failed abysmally at that. Meanwhile, in Oak Park, we’ve put together a structure to actually realize it.”
One of the people who helped build that structure in Oak Park also played a pivotal role in the effort, according to The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North.
On July 10, 1966, King and 36,000 other people marched in nearly 100-degree heat from Soldier Field to City Hall to post a list of demands to the building’s La Salle Street entrance. They included a call for more jobs for blacks, the abolition of wage theft, the creation of a citizen review board to look into cases of police brutality and the end to discriminatory housing practices.
That housing would become the movement’s primary focus is, in large part, the work of activist Bill Moyer and his efforts to integrate Oak Park.
A civil rights group called the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) had created the Housing Opportunities Program (HOP) in order to help blacks find homes in the suburbs. Moyer was director of a unit within HOP called Home Opportunities Made Equal (HOME).
In the summer of 1966, he set up a program in Oak Park similar to one he’d organized in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs the previous year.
“The Oak Park project was a plan to have a direct action campaign focusing on the real estate offices and on getting a fair housing ordinance passed by the city government in a community where a number of black families wanted to move,” Moyer, who died in 2002, told the historian James R. Ralph Jr., in a 1988 interview.
“We would [pair white families with black families and] have a white family go into a real estate office and ask for the kind of housing that their paired black family want[ed], and then they would get all of the information and leave,” Moyer recalled. “And then a few minutes later the black family would go in and ask for the same information, and they would be told there wasn’t anything. … We documented the discrimination and wrote that up.”
Moyer helped organize rallies through Oak Park, which would often end in front of real estate offices that refused black families. Sometimes, Moyer said, prominent SCLC leaders like Jesse Jackson, Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel would participate.
Bevel, who was one of King’s advance men in Chicago, conducting research on the city’s living conditions for several months before King arrived, decided to apply Moyer’s approach to the Freedom Movement.
Before then, the book notes, the focus of the movement hadn’t been narrowed down to one all-encompassing issue. In fact, the 1960s Chicago civil rights movement sprang from discontent among black parents regarding the city’s public schools.
“Now in demonstrations you can’t have some obscure issue that is cloudy in the minds of people,” Bevel, who died in 2008, told Ralph. “Should a man have a right to rent and buy a house in the city if he works or lives in that city and is a citizen of that city? You have to pick a target so that when the opposition is arguing, he makes a fool of himself.”
Moyer said the SCLC, which was fresh from the successes of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and relatively new to the more sophisticated racism and discrimination in the North, “did not have a real handle on a direct action strategy.”
“I think they probably were looking for something that would really point out the basic racism in the North and in Chicago, some kind of clear violation of basic principles of civil rights,” he said.
Although the Freedom Movement disbanded in 1967, many historians and policy experts have given the campaign credit for the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which effectively outlawed discriminatory real estate practices. Oak Park approved a local Fair Housing Ordinance, the first in the nation, several months before the federal law passed.
While the law made the outright denial of housing to minorities illegal, it couldn’t police the attitudes of many whites who saw black neighbors as an inherent threat to their property values or the more subtle practices of white real estate agents who exploited that widespread fear to their advantage.
“Much of the [federal] fair housing strategy is strictly about enforcement, which is just a reactive strategy,” said Breymaier, whose organization was founded in 1972. “The brilliance of Oak Park’s approach was that instead of being reactive, we were pro-active,” Breymaier noted. “We need to use the Fair Housing Act’s power to allow people to promote integration and get involved with people when they’re making a housing choice. The Oak Park strategy makes more of a concerted effort to be involved in the process of looking for housing.”
Daniel Lauber, a River Forest attorney and urban planner, has written and researched extensively on housing discrimination. In a study he published in the 1990s, Lauber argues that, after the Fair Housing Act passed, the practice of racial steering — directing white homebuyers to all-white areas while discouraging any movement into integrated areas, and directing black homebuyers exclusively to all-black and integrated areas — replaced wholesale the practice of outright denial.
Lauber said the subtle practice was particularly lucrative to landlords who charged blacks higher rents, since they had fewer housing options, while neglecting to spend the money necessary to maintain the properties.
Oak Park, he added, avoided the fate of communities like his native South Shore because it could control its own destiny.
“When I grew up in South Shore, it was integrating and it wanted to do all these things, but they were sabotaged by [Mayor Richard J.] Daley the first,” Lauber recalled. “Oak Park is the one place that got so many people from South Shore moving in. [They] pretty much implemented all the things South Shore wanted to do.”
Oak Park got two big things right. It avoided segregating its minority residents into public housing and made sure no area schools became majority minority.
How the village avoided those mistakes might be attributed to the passage of local laws, such as an ordinance that banned “for-sale” lawn signs, which authorities thought could only feed into the fear whites had at the time of blacks moving in and lowering property values.
Oak Park’s fair housing ordinance created a Community Relations Division to enforce the ordinance’s prohibition of racial steering, blockbusting and discriminatory lending practices.
“There was a big fear in Oak Park after the Fair Housing Act about what was going to happen in Austin, where you had blacks moving in and whites being encouraged to move out of Oak Park,” said Maria Saldanas, the executive director of the nonprofit Oak Park Residence Corporation (RESCO).
“It was just beginning to happen. I’ve heard stories of people who grew up around here and they would always hear that Oak Park was going to be next (to turn into an all-black community),” said Saldana, who lives in Austin.
Saldana’s organization was founded in 1966 to prevent the kind of blight in Oak Park that was overtaking nearby Austin as it rapidly turned into a predominantly black community. According to the U.S. Census, between 1970 and 1980, Austin’s population went from around 90 percent white to over 90 percent black.
Instead of allowing apartment buildings on the border of Austin to fall prey to exploitative landlords, RESCO acquired the properties, rehabilitated them and offered high quality property management services to tenants of all ethnicities at affordable prices. The organization now owns and manages roughly two dozen multiunit buildings throughout the village.
Founded in 1972, the idea for the housing center came out of Oak Park native Bobbie Raymond’s master’s thesis, which she had written the previous year while studying sociology at Roosevelt University.
If whites wouldn’t live near blacks out of fear, the idea went, then the center would help break down the myths undergirding that fear. Through advertising and by meeting with prospective homebuyers and renters, the center’s advisers seek to persuade them to consider areas in the village that they otherwise wouldn’t consider because of deeply held racial biases.
In a 1988 interview with the Chicago Reader, Raymond addressed critics who consider the center’s efforts another form of racial steering.
“What we do is not steering,” Raymond said. “Steering is blacks who go looking for housing being escorted to black areas or integrated areas, and whites who look for housing being escorted to white areas, period. That’s a very negative term, and I don’t like for us to be lumped in with groups that steer. Our counseling and escorting is affirmative escorting, exposing whites and blacks to units they couldn’t see otherwise. When we talk about ‘integration maintenance,’ we’re really talking about trying to undo years of segregation maintenance.”
Louise Varnes, the center’s longest-serving staff member, moved to Oak Park from Des Plaines in 1968 with her former husband and their four children. She said her social awareness grew from there.
“I wasn’t aware about all of the movement in Austin until we moved here,” Varnes said in a recent interview. “Before we moved, it wasn’t really part of our consciousness.”
Varnes said as the chatter about Oak Park possibly falling prey to the “white flight” phenomenon that was affecting Chicago and many inner-ring suburbs grew louder, she and other residents banded together to stop it from happening.
“We had neighbors who were interested in integrating the community and more and more people got involved that way,” she said. “I think Oak Park remained integrated because there were very imaginative, very smart and strong personalities who were involved in working out plans around what could be done. We felt very challenged by people telling us that Oak Park didn’t have a chance (to remain integrated). We were going to do something about that.”