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WILMETTE LIFE — Jan. 16, 2003

Housing advocates recall King’s support in 1965


Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered most widely for civil rights struggles in the Deep South, but discrimination was not only a southern issue.

North Shore residents recall King’s July 1965 visit to the Village Green in Winnekta, a visit he made to support ongoing efforts by local residents to overturn housing discrimination practices.

“It was very emotional and it was very thrilling to have him there,” recalls Marvin Miller of Wilmette. “It was a pep talk essentially.”

King and his retinue from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had come to Chicago for a three-day visit. Following talks in Chicago, he headed north to meet with supporters of the North Shore Summer Project.

The summer project was headed by a core of women and clergy from Wilmette and surrounding suburbs. Their goal, Miller said, was to overcome real estate practices which for decades had kept most neighborhoods virtually all-white and tended to steer Jews to certain areas.

The system was enforced at times by written covenants, but also by practices in the real estate industry and by homeowners who didn’t want to break ranks. African Americans in the Chicago area didn’t face the same variety and intensity of oppression they did in the South, but they were very much limited in where they could live.

“We had apartheid in this country. We really did,” Miller said.

His wife Rayna, who died in 2001, was a central figure in the summer project.

Real estate pressure

Their early strategy was to attempt bypassing the real estate industry and appeal directly to people selling their homes.

“They would get the ads from the paper each week and ask whether they would be willing to sell on a nondiscrimination basis. They got nobody for two or three years. They finally went public with it and held vigils. That really opened it up,” Miller said.

The silent vigils were held outside the office of the Evanston-North Shore Board of Realtors or individual Realtor’s offices.

Jean Cleland, who was also part of the movement, recalls that vigiling was a new and sometimes frightening experience for many members. Political action in the street, even peaceful gatherings, was well outside the usual roles played by women on the North Shore at that time.

“We'd have people drive by and say unpleasant things. Mainly they'd say something like go home and take care of your kids,” Cleland said.

Religious organization

Much of their organizational work happened through churches and synagogues, and Cleland credits Buckner Coe, the pastor of the First Congregational Church, with providing the encouragement to keep up the fight. The coalition eventually gave rise to what is now the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs.

The early payoff of the summer project’s labor was a series of local, then national laws that banned housing discrimination.

“What we were trying to do initially was to make some small crack in the whole system,” Cleland said.

Cleland, who now works at the North Shore Senior Center, remembers working with her husband, Ralph, to help organize King’s Winnetka visit.

“He had come to Chicago to work on discrimination issues but also affordable housing, and the separation of people by color. When he was made aware of the fact there was a group on the North Shore, he was sympathetic to it. It is my memory that he had also spoken on that same Sunday at Soldier Field,” Cleland said.

“I recall he was taken to a house in Hyde Park and some of us were invited to come down there and meet him firsthand that afternoon,” she said. “All of us had been wearing a black-and-white button with a house and an equal sign. I offered my pin to him. He put it on, which was a real treat for me.”

King endorsement

Though he was known as a powerful and eloquent speaker in public, King appeared as an ordinary man at private gatherings. At this one, he was a man tired from a demanding schedule and trying to muster energy for another rally.

The evening event on the Village Green drew as many as 10,000 people. Miller could not recall the details of the speech, but remembered it as a boost to area supporters.

An account of the speech in the Evanston Review showed that King called on Americans to close the gap between its principles and practices and to attack segregation as a moral wrong. He also addressed the summer project’s strategy of pressuring Realtors.

“Racism in housing will not be removed until there is an assault on the structures of power that profit from it. What may be profitable to a Realtor is not profitable to a city,” King was quoted as saying.

There were no disturbances at the speech, although a small band of neo-Nazis picketed before King arrived.

Cleland said the demographic makeup of the area never changed as much as she and others envisioned at the time, but legal discrimination was ended.

Miller said attitudes have also changed.

“The town we live in now is entirely different than the one we moved into in the ’50s,” he said.

Within the next year, King would move into a tenement on Chicago’s West Side to call attention to segregation issues in the city.

Earlier in Evanston

The 1965 visit was not King’s first to the area. In 1958, he spoke at Evanston’s Beth Emet Synagogue. Tapes from that speech were rediscovered last year and heard by the public for the first time.

At that time, King’s star was just beginning to rise as a national leader. The visit followed the successful Montgomery bus boycott.

“We were under the impression that this was one of his first trips north,” said Hank Neuberger, a professional sound engineer who reviewed the tapes last year. “He had selected Chicago for one place to speak. He had reached out to some churches who declined to invite him to speak.”

The reel-to-reel tapes were found in the belongings of a synagogue member who had died.

In the speech, King made an appeal to keep the civil rights movement nonviolent and characterized the painful struggle as growing pains on the way to better times. At that time in the civil rights struggles, school desegregation efforts were being fought in many parts of the South.


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