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Martin Luther King, Jr. in Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Betsy Landes
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2006

Few of today’s Winnetka residents may be aware of, and fewer still may have actually witnessed, the event forty years ago that drew the largest crowd ever assembled on the Village Green. On the evening of July 25, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed an audience of between 8,000 and 10,000 people who had waited four hours to hear the civil rights leader speak. Just as remarkable as the size of the audience was the calm atmosphere that prevailed at a time when Dr. King’s appearances often met with vehement opposition and even violence. Reporting on the event, the Winnetka Talk noted that, with the picnics and folk singing performances that preceded Dr. King’s speech and the orderliness of the reception Dr. King received from the predominantly white crowd, the Village Green resembled Ravinia.

Yet the issues that brought Dr. King to Winnetka that summer evening were serious. The events leading to his appearance on the Village Green were set in motion by a group of young mothers who worried that their children were growing up in North Shore communities that lacked diversity. Housing discrimination, both overt and subtle, was common at that time. Real estate advertisements sometimes even specified that non-white and non-Christian buyers were barred. These women were convinced, however, that many of their north suburban neighbors shared their opposition to discrimination. Their concerns led to the organization of the North Shore Summer Project, in which they joined with community leaders and clergy, and recruited college student volunteers, to conduct a survey of local residents to determine their attitudes toward opening their communities to home purchasers who were not screened on the basis of race or religion. As part of their effort to bring an end to housing discrimination, members of the North Shore Summer Project invited Dr. King to speak in Winnetka.

Dr. King’s appearance in Winnetka came at the end of a day of rallies in the Chicago area. Though hoarse and exhausted from five earlier speeches, Dr. King urged the crowd to “go all out to end segregation in housing.” He asserted that “[e]very white person does great injury to his child if he allows that child to grow up in a world that is two-thirds colored and yet live in conditions where that child does not come into person-to-person contact with colored people.” Dr. King criticized not only the “vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people,” but also “the silence of the good people.” He observed: “We must now learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.”

Already a Nobel Prize laureate, Dr. King was a controversial figure, yet news accounts of the Winnetka event do not suggest widespread local opposition to the rally. A number of local residents reportedly did call the village manager to express their concerns, including questions about bathroom facilities. The New York Times reported that a bomb threat had been received, but neither the Winnetka Talk nor the Chicago Tribune mentioned such a threat. A high level of security was provided, but the fifty police officers on duty spent most of their time furnishing much-needed traffic and crowd control and no arrests were made. The only reported incident involved four young men from Chicago wearing khaki uniforms with swastikas and brandishing picket signs with messages such as “Integration Stinks.” The four were quickly surrounded by hundreds of disapproving spectators. When Winnetka Police Chief Don Derning informed them that he could not spare the manpower needed to provide security for them, they agreed to leave before Dr. King arrived.

Winnetka’s placid Village Green, site of decades of Memorial Day observances, Fourth of July celebrations, and Children’s Fairs, became on that July day the unlikely venue for a massive civil rights rally. What began with conversations among a few suburban mothers culminated in the peaceful gathering of the largest crowd in Winnetka’s history to hear the words of one of the most significant leaders of the twentieth century. The North Shore Summer Project ultimately led to the formation of the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, a Winnetka organization that continues to promote fair and affordable housing in 16 north suburban communities. Moreover, this memorable event undoubtedly influenced the futures of many people who were present on that day. Today, when the barriers to a more diverse community may be based more on economic factors than on discrimination, Winnetkans still do well to remember the long tradition of grass-roots activism, progressive thought, and tolerance that brought a huge and peaceful crowd to the Village Green forty years ago.

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10 Responses to “Martin Luther King, Jr. in Winnetka”

  1. Barbara Dowd Wright January 11, 2015 at 9:23 pm #

    As a resident of Winnetka at the time and one of the women who planned for this event, I was interested when our son sent the article remembering that he was a young boy riding his bike around the village green waiting for Dr, King. King’s speech was inspiring and the great majority of Winnetkans supported his efforts. Thanks those at the Historical Society for remembering.

    • January 15, 2015 at 10:17 pm #

      Barbara -thank you for your comment! We are very interested in talking further with you about this event! If you happen to still live in the area, we would love for you to attend our MLK Day event on Monday at 1:00 at the Community House.
      If you are not in the area, please let me know what your contact information is – telephone number – and I’d love to call and talk with you about this. Or give me a call!

      Patti Van Cleave
      Executive Director
      847 446 0001
      director@winnetkahistory.org

  2. January 24, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

    Perhaps like quite a few who grew up on the North Shore during that era, we had an Africain-American live-in couple in our home who were from Nashville, TN. She was the housekeeper and cook. He worked at Mystic Tape. Mabel and Willie lived with us from about 1957-1962 and she came back a few times in later years to look after me when my parents travelled. I loved her dearly. She had no children of her own. Later in life I realized what a profound impact she had on my life and though I lived in England, I traveled to Nashville to see her at Thanksgiving on several occasions. Once we went with her to her church, which was an all black congregation. My husband and I were asked as guests to stand up and introduce ourselves to about 300 or so people. The reception couldn’t have been warmer. My experience of Mabel marked my life and made me forever a crusader for equal rights for all Americans. It’s not the story you read about in The Help–but that is my story.

    • September 26, 2018 at 10:32 am #

      That is interesting, because we had a similar experience. A wonderful man, Malcolm, he took care of the house, the yard, he stayed when he wanted, went home on the El. It wasn’t like, “Driving Miss Daisy”, his family was welcome to use our beach tokens. We had a lot of good times.

  3. August 15, 2015 at 7:23 pm #

    I sincerely hope that this amazing day in Winnetka (North Shore) history is
    brought uP more often!!!!!! As a 45 year old who was raised in Winnetka, at-
    tended F.H.C, Loyola & New Trier, and still have family living on the N.S, I was floored to only learn of MLK Jr.’s Historic Visit to Winnetka on the 4th of July this year!!!!!!! I know I was not the best student, but I would have remembered this, as I will now, for my life’s entirety. The level of inspiration I have gained by knowing of this historic day has been exponential:) Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo………ted

  4. April 5, 2019 at 12:05 am #

    My father was a Winnetka police officer at the time and was fully involved with escorting the motorcade as well as crowd and traffic control. He was most proud of this day and I admired my dad for his morals. I feel thankful to have grow up in a household without prejudice or hate.

    • April 5, 2019 at 12:07 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. What a wonderful connection to King and to that day!
      -Rachel, Curator

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