Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on the Village Green
By Cecile Hales
Originally published the Fall/Winter 2014 Gazette
Fifty years—surely a milestone to be celebrated and an opportunity to look back, no matter what the original event. In this case the event was truly historic: July 2015 will mark 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared on Winnetka’s Village Green to give a speech on discrimination in housing and about racial issues in general.
Even in the turbulent 1960s, the all-white suburb of Winnetka seemed an unlikely place for a civil rights rally. The topics of equality and desegregation, however, had been raised two years earlier when thoughtful residents of Wilmette and Winnetka added their signatures to ads in local papers calling for racial justice. Then, a group called the North Shore Summer Project was created early in 1965, aiming to break the pattern of segregated housing in several North Shore suburbs.
The Summer Project began carrying out silent vigils at the offices of realtors who, they said, were complicit in offering houses for sale on a discriminatory basis. Supporters distributed literature to passersby, and volunteers carried out surveys of suburban residents’ attitudes about selling homes to minorities.
As part of these initiatives, the NSSP extended an invitation to Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak in Winnetka during his three-day visit to Chicago–composed of rallies, speeches and conferences–scheduled for July 24-26. After securing the necessary permits from the Winnetka Park District, they planned a public picnic and rally to precede the speech and produced a flier to publicize the event.
On Sunday July 25th a crowd estimated at 8,000-10,000 people—the largest in the history of Winnetka—gathered on the Village Green to hear folk singers Oscar Brown, Jr., Win Stracke, George and Gerry Armstrong along with broadcaster Studs Terkel, who served as master of ceremonies. Families, students and activists all sat attentively on the ground or on the ranks of folding chairs that had been set up for the occasion, waiting to hear the 36-year old Nobel laureate speak.
Dr. King arrived late, hoarse from giving five speeches earlier that day. But he launched into his speech enthusiastically. “Every white person does great injury to his child if he allows that child to grow up in a world that is 2/3 colored and yet live in conditions where that child does not come into person-to-person contact with colored people.” As for segregated housing, Dr. King stated, “What is profitable to a realtor is not always profitable to a city.”
Dr. King also urged his audience to take part in a march on Chicago’s City Hall the following day to demonstrate against Chicago Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis. He referred repeatedly to segregated housing, pointing out that this is the cause of de facto segregation in the schools.
It was King’s first rally in an all-white suburb.
Some 108 media personnel attended the event. Over 50 police officers were either on hand or on call nearby. Security personnel were watching for potential trouble, but the only incident involved four young Chicago men, members of the American Nazi Party, who carried signs proclaiming “Integration Stinks” and “White Men Fight Back.” The police, saying they couldn’t spare the manpower to protect them from an unsympathetic crowd, requested that they leave. The four complied.
The rally evoked a few letters-to-the-editor of reaction, both pro and con, but overall the response of attendees was very positive. “I thought it was one of the most beautiful evenings I’ve ever spent,” said Marvin Miller, a member of the North Shore Project. Others say they were energized by King’s speech and mobilized to continue their efforts.
Although the North Shore Summer Project was disbanded in October of that year, other initiatives were launched, some of which still continue to this day.
One is the Interfaith Housing Center of the North Suburbs (now known as Open Communities), which was established in 1972 with the aim of influencing housing policy and enforcing non-discrimination laws to bring about inclusion and diversity in the northern suburbs.
Another is Camp TWIG. Dr. King’s speech in Winnetka so inspired David James, who in 1967 became the first African American to buy a home in Winnetka, that he set up summer activities for a mixture of North Shore suburban children and those from the south side of Chicago. TWIG stands for Together We Influence Growth, and it is now a six-week summer day camp for youngsters ages 7 to 12 operating at Greeley School in Winnetka.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. visit to Winnetka has been referred to in documentaries such as a WTTW “Chicago Stories” episode in 2002, which looked at how Winnetkans played a part in the activism of the 1960s.
In 2007 a panel discussion at the Winnetka Women’s Club, held on Martin Luther King Day and sponsored jointly by the Winnetka Historical Society and the Interfaith Housing Center of the North Suburbs, brought together several persons who attended the 1965 speech. They related their memories and reflected on its impact on present-day policies. Later in 2007, the 8th grade Social Studies students from Washburne Middle School were inspired by their teacher Cecilia Gigiolio to propose that a permanent marker be placed on the Village Green to commemorate the occasion.
Students circulated a petition and put together a presentation; they addressed the Winnetka-Northfield Rotary Club and the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and took turns at the podium to successfully lobby the Village of Winnetka to adopt their cause. The bronze marker is set in a stone base at the corner of Maple and Oak Streets on the Village Green.
The issues of economic opportunity, segregated housing and education have not gone away in the 50 years since Dr. King’s Winnetka speech. With the economic turmoil of recent years, his cause is perhaps even more difficult to achieve. But on one July day 50 years ago Winnetka witnessed the passion of a generation.