Martin Luther King, atomic energy, open housing, and DuPage County

In 1967, the federal government had selected a site in southwestern DuPage County, Illinois, on the land of the small community of Weston, for a new National Atomic Laboratory. Dozens of locales across the country had applied, including places with existing concentrations of physics facilities and scientists. As the government worked to confirm and develop the site, in June 1967 protestors marched to Weston against the selection of the site because of open housing problems in nearby communities and the State of Illinois. Connected to the marchers? Martin Luther King, Jr.

The DuPage County site came through an interesting political process (see the book Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience) and the selection offered an opportunity for civil rights activists to pressure the state of Illinois and local governments, particularly in light of the lack of change after the Chicago Freedom Movement and Martin Luther King’s protests in Chicago in 1966. (See, for example, the subsequent push for open housing in nearby Naperville as detailed by Ann Durkin Keating in “Behind the Suburban Curtain.”)

King announced a rally for June 1967. Organizers talked of a “tent-in” and marchers had plans to walk from a nearby religious retreat center in Warrenville (where the Chicago Tribune reported they faced hecklers) to the Weston site. According to the Tribune, King made a short visit to the tented protestors on June 23:

Dr. King, a leader of the Chicago Freedom movement which is sponsoring the “tent-in,” spoke to the dozen campers and a battery of newsmen and called the Weston protest a necessity to keep civil rights alive.

Asked by newsmen if he was losing support for his civil rights programs, King said:

“I don’t know how much support we are losing, but I will say the vast majority of white Americans are against us. We hope the government will hear our pleas and our cries.”…

Dr. King spent about 15 minutes with the campers, who had pitched their tents Thursday afternoon in an effort to urge Congress not to approve the Atomic Energy commission’s request for the Weston accelerator.

The Chicago Tribune ran a small article on June 25 summarizing the march:

An estimated 350 civil rights demonstrators marched without incident yesterday into west suburban Weston to protest the Atomic Energy commission’s decision to build a proton accelerator there…

In Weston, Raby and McGermott addressed the crowd from a sound truck. “We are beginning to see the end of the 1964 civil rights act,” said Raby. “The Illinois state legislature, in failing to pass an open housing law, has demonstrated its total disregard for the laws of the federal government,” Raby said.

King did not attend the march. Yet, lending his name and effort to the protest helped publicize open housing issues facing Illinois suburbs as well as many other communities across the country. Furthermore, his efforts in suburbs are not widely known  as compared to efforts in large cities in which he spent significant amounts of time.

Open housing officially came through Congress in 1968 after MLK was assassinated. The Fermilab facility broke ground in December 1968 and operated as a premier science facility for decades. DuPage County continued to have a reputation of few minorities for decades and a long-running lawsuit alleged exclusionary zoning in the county and the county public housing authority faced issues. And while increasing numbers of minorities have moved to the suburbs in recent decades, the suburbs can still be exclusive and exclusionary.

Sources:

Chicago Tribune. 1967. “King Admits His Movement Loses Ground.” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 10.

Chicago Tribune. 1967. “Marchers Protest Weston.” Chicago Tribune, June 25, 7.

Hoddeson, Lillian, Adrienne W. Kolb, and Catherine Westfall. 2008. Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.\

Johnson, Michelle Kimberly. 2016. “”Who Speaks for Chicago?” Civil Rights, Community Organization and Coalition, 1910-1971.” https://www.brown.edu/academics/history/sites/academics-history/files/images/MJohnson%20Who%20Speaks%20for%20Chicago.pdf

Keating, Ann Durkin. 2017. “”Behind the Suburban Curtain”: The Campaign for Open Occupancy in Naperville.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 110(1):59-86.

 

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