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.