Coming out of Kribi Coffee on South Boulevard last week, I passed the unremarkable storefront that houses the quite remarkable Oak Park Area Housing Center. Without the Housing Center, Oak Park would not be what it is today. 

Through the window, I spotted, stenciled in large letters on the wall, “The Right of All People to Live Where They Choose.” 

There’s a story behind those words, which I tell in my book, Our Town Oak Park – Walk with Me, in Search of True Community, beginning on page 83, in a piece titled “A story that binds us,” from the chapter “Ceremonies & Celebrations.” The entire book is a celebration of community, but this story is essential to understanding why we have a community worth celebrating. 

Here’s an excerpt:

“They didn’t give in to fear” should be inscribed on a monument somewhere in Oak Park — along with names, a thousand strong, that appeared in an ad covering a two-full-page spread in local newspapers — the Oak Leaves and the Village Economist — on April 16, 1964, just a few months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, when things were a little, shall we say, unsettled in this country. 

The ad was titled, “The Right of All People to Live Where They Choose,” and everyone who put their name to the document paid a dollar for the privilege, just enough to pay for the ad.

They were not, by any stretch, a bunch of wild-eyed radicals. This was a largely Republican town in those days, and plenty of Republicans are on the list, including my very Republican parents, though I didn’t know that until 30 years later. A number of River Forest residents also signed on.

These ordinary citizens took an extraordinary public stand in favor of “open housing,” which was not yet on the radar of most residents in April of 1964. 

Yet many signed up — 99 percent of them white — and in doing so, served notice to the world that this wasn’t your ordinary suburb. They were willing to risk their property values for a principle: Fairness. …

The text was written by community activist June Heinrich:

“We, the undersigned residents of Oak Park and River Forest, believing in the essential oneness of humankind, and seeking to foster such unity in our communities, do hereby declare:

That we want residence in our villages to be open to anyone interested in sharing our benefits and responsibilities, regardless of race, color, creed, or national origin.

That we believe in equal opportunity for all in the fields of education, business, and the professions, in harmony with constitutional guarantees of equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;

That mutual understanding between people of diverse ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds can best be attained by an attitude of reciprocal good will and increased association;

That all citizens, in a spirit of justice, dignity, and kindness, should give serious consideration to the challenge that now faces all Americans in the achievement of brotherhood under God.”

The ad started the Open Housing Movement in Oak Park, which led, four years later, to the passage of a groundbreaking Fair Housing Ordinance, one of the first in the nation.

Once upon a time, in a village just outside Chicago, ordinary/extraordinary people stood up for a principle — the right of all people to live where they choose. Their names should be posted somewhere, an “honor roll” representing everything that’s good and decent and right about us. …

If you’re proud of these towns, or simply enjoy living here, you’re in their debt. Even Hemingway would have been impressed. Under pressure, they showed grace. They proved we are not the village of broad streets and narrow minds. They did the right thing. They took the road less traveled.

And you know what a difference that makes. 

Some of the wording from the ad found its way into the Village Diversity Statement, which is now 50 years old and read publicly on a biennial basis when newly elected members of the Village Board of Trustees are sworn in. The Diversity Statement is essentially the village creed. We should make that reading an annual event, along with its preamble, “The Right of All People to Live Where They Choose.” Both are powerful statements of purpose.

Those words have been much on my mind in the past week because of war in the Middle East and our ongoing immigration struggles. The conflict between Israel and Palestine, which started in 1947 and continues unabated, derives from the inability of both sides to respect, and come to terms with, the right of all people to live where they choose. 

The same can be said of our immigration mess. Though we seem to forget, America is a land of immigrants. When Europeans arrived, they took the land from those who were already here — who were themselves originally migrants, arriving on this continent from Asia. And the descendants of Africans, brought to this country against their will to be slaves, became part of another Great Migration, north and west, where they were forcibly segregated in cities like Chicago and not allowed to live where they choose.

Which makes the Oak Park declaration in 1964, and our continuing commitment to take the full journey to ensure equity for all people, all the more remarkable.

And well worth celebrating.

“Our Town Oak Park” is available at The Book Table and online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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