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.

 

Race, development, and reversing the designation of MLK Blvd in Kansas City

A majority of voters in Kansas City decided to change the name of a street that had just recently been named for Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Kansas City voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved removing Dr. Martin Luther King’s name from one of the city’s most historic boulevards. The decision comes less than a year after the city council decided to rename the street, which had been known as The Paseo…

The debate over the name of the 10-mile boulevard on the city’s mostly black east side began shortly after the council’s decision in January to rename The Paseo for King. Civil rights leaders who pushed for the change celebrated when the street signs went up, believing they had finally won a decades-long battle to honor the civil rights icon, which appeared to end Kansas City’s reputation as one of the largest U.S. cities in the country without a street named for him…

The campaign has been divisive, with supporters of King’s name accusing opponents of being racist, while supporters of The Paseo name say city leaders pushed the name change through without following proper procedures and ignored The Paseo’s historic value.

Emotions reached a peak Sunday, when members of the “Save the Paseo” group staged a silent protest at a get-out-the-vote rally at a black church for people wanting to keep the King name. They walked into the Paseo Baptist Church and stood along its two aisles.

Streets named after Dr. King are common in American cities. As a pastor argues at the end of the cited article, honoring important figures through naming roads after them could influence people. Whose names are applied to schools, parks, highways, and other public buildings and settings indicate something about how a leader is remembered and by whom.

When so many cities in the United States have already done this, how could changing the name back not indicate something unique about Kansas City? King’s name is revered in many circles – including among white evangelicals – so going out of their way to change the name back may hint at larger issues. As described in the article above, opponents of having King’s name on the boulevard valued the historic designation for the road. Protecting local character and history is a common argument in many American communities. At the same time, could they have suggested another major road that could have been named after King or could a portion of the road have carried both designations (think of Chicago’s many honorary names for stretches of streets)?

I would guess this is not just about a road: it is about who gets to define Kansas City and what histories are remembered. To that end, I would recommend sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham’s book Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000. From the description of the book:

Using the Kansas City metropolitan area as a case study, Gotham provides both quantitative and qualitative documentation of the role of the real estate industry and the Federal Housing Administration, demonstrating how these institutions have promulgated racial residential segregation and uneven development. Gotham challenges contemporary explanations while providing fresh insights into the racialization of metropolitan space, the interlocking dimensions of class and race in metropolitan development, and the importance of analyzing housing as a system of social stratification.

Such patterns influenced numerous American cities but this book has much to say about how this all occurred in Kansas City.

Naming a street for MLK could influence attitudes and behaviors

A debate in Kansas City about naming a road in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. involves asking how the name might affect people:

Some residents argue that choosing a street in a disinvested, mostly black neighborhood would perpetuate stereotypes of thoroughfares that are already named for him in other cities, and would fail to force white people to consider Dr. King’s legacy and the racism that still exists so long after his death. Others, though, say that choosing a street in a white area would be an affront to the city’s black residents and disrespectful of the fact that Dr. King fought primarily for the rights of black people…

Mr. Lucas said he leaned toward giving the name to a street where white people tend to venture more often, because it could have a greater impact there. “There’s something to be said for the fact that you need to make sure the entire community honors it, instead of saying, ‘That’s something the black folks are doing for the black folks in a black area.’ ”…

Complicating this naming fight is a simple truth: Kansas City, like much of the country, struggles with segregation.

For two years, advocates have lobbied the parks board, which oversees the city’s boulevard system, to change the name. Jean-Paul Chaurand, the board president, responded last month with a letter stating that longstanding policy has been to name streets after local residents who made significant contributions to the city. He suggested creating a commission to discuss the renaming further.

This sounds like a ready-made research question: do honorary roads affect attitudes and behaviors over time? Major cities have many such roads, in various neighborhoods, and designated at various times which would give researchers plenty of variation to work with. I wonder if such research would show minimal positive effects in a city overall (though it could be more important in particular locations, as noted in the discussion above) but then it might be argued that not naming such roads – particularly in a case like Martin Luther King, Jr. – would have negative repercussions.

See an earlier post where Illinois legislators discussed creating a Barack Obama roadway. If Reagan has a highway (the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway in Illinois among others in the United States), shouldn’t Obama get one as well?

The Chicago Tribune in 1968 and conservatives today: sociologists excuse rioters

In an overview of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final months, the Chicago Tribune quotes its own take on urban riots:

King’s opponents saw his proposed march as an invitation to rioting. In the 1960s, one inner city after another had exploded in deadly and destructive riots. King explained the violence with a metaphor: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

The Tribune rejected that argument in a Jan. 21, 1968, editorial: “Every time there is a riot in the streets you can count on a flock of sociologists rushing forward to excuse the rioters.” King’s “nonviolence,” the Tribune added, “is designed to goad others into violence.”

Simultaneously, King was under attack by a younger generation of black militants who rejected his pacifist philosophy as weak. Their conclusion was echoed by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “I don’t call for violence or riots, but the day of Martin Luther King has come to an end,” said Powell, a longtime U.S. congressman from New York.

Lest the Tribune let this idea of sociologists excusing riots be swept into the dustbin of history, this idea exists in recent years as well. In 2013, the conservative Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology” when addressing terrorism. Conservative columnist George Will used a similar phrase in 2012 when discussing the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Of course, explaining social phenomena is not the same as excusing or condoning it.

Now that I have seen this sort of explanation multiple times, it is clearly less about sociology and how social science works and more about political ideology. Sociologists, by a wide majority, are liberals. Those who tend to disparage sociology in public phrases like these are conservatives. The implication is that sociologists and liberals are willing to allow violence and disorder if it serves a particular political end. And, this may have just enough of a grain of truth to be a repeatable claim.

Five decades later, white evangelicals commonly invoking MLK

In recent years, I think I noticed something within white evangelical circles: a regular use of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. I do not know if this is a certifiable trend or not; it simply popped into my mind after a few recent experiences.

On one hand, this could be viewed as a positive sign. White evangelicals are turning around to addressing issues of race and justice. They recognize the importance of the work of MLK. They are willing to learn from others outside of their theological tradition.

On the other hand, I wonder if this is all five decades too late. Are the evangelicals of today the same “white moderates” King criticizes in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“? Is King now acceptable for use because his words and ideas are a normal part of American society? Are those invoking King today willing to go to the same lengths as King and other Christians to fight injustice?

May this Martin Luther King Day help lead to true justice.

 

MLK streets in the US contained in a “nation within a nation”

Many American cities have streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. and many are located within black areas:

Across the country there are 730 streets named after civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr…

For his book “Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America’s Main Street,” author Jonathan Tilove visited nearly 500 Martin Luther King streets across the country. In his book, he described a “nation within a nation” as “a parallel universe.”

“For many whites, a street sign that says Martin Luther King tells them they are lost,” Tilove wrote. “For many blacks, a street sign that says Martin Luther King tells them they are found.”

And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drive in Chicago has its own complicated past:

Instead, a South Side designation was boosted by Mayor Richard J. Daley. It was a move Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor describe as “disingenuous” in their Daley biography “American Pharaoh.”

Foes when King was alive, Daley, by supporting the renaming, was attempting to portray himself as a forward thinker on race relations ahead of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the biographers said.

In dedicating the street, Daley “invoked King’s devotion to nonviolence in a verbal formation that made it sound as if Daley had the idea first,” Cohen and Taylor wrote.

Par for the course in a racialized country: where the effects of race extend even to street names. That said, I wonder what would happen in some major cities if there were efforts to extend MLK street into white and/or tourist areas…

Remembering MLK in Chicago

The story of the time Martin Luther King, Jr. spent in Chicago in 1966 is not well-known. While many think of King as leading a successful Civil Rights Movement that culminated in the “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963 and then the passing of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, his efforts in his last years faced more opposition. In Chicago, he unsuccessfully fought for an end to residential segregation. Read two longer posts about King’s time in Chicago:

MLK in Chicago – Jan 17, 2011

More on MLK in Chicago in 1966 – Aug 7, 2011

The Chicago Tribune has this short summary of what King faced in Chicago:

On this muggy Friday afternoon, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out of the car that had ferried him to Marquette Park on Chicago’s Southwest Side to lead a march of about 700 people. The civil-rights leader and his supporters were in the white ethnic enclave to protest housing segregation. Thousands of jeering, taunting whites had gathered. The mood was ominous. One placard read: “King would look good with a knife in his back.”

As King marched, someone hurled a stone. It struck King on the head. Stunned, he fell to one knee. He stayed on the ground for several seconds. As he rose, aides and bodyguards surrounded him to protect him from the rocks, bottles and firecrackers that rained down on the demonstrators. King was one of 30 people who were injured; the disturbance resulted in 40 arrests. He later explained why he put himself at risk: “I have to do this–to expose myself–to bring this hate into the open.” He had done that before, but Chicago was different. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” he said.

Not Chicago’s best day or season.

Bill Levitt only allowed open housing in Levittowns after MLK was killed

The several Levittowns built in the 1950s were often viewed as model suburban communities. However, they had a darker legacy as the builders, the Levitt family, would not sell homes to blacks. The book Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb recounts the hostility the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1958 faced. The epilogue to the book (p.194-195) includes this description of how Bill Levitt finally agreed to open housing:

Levitt remained on as president of the company for about six months, however, and had one last unexpected order of business before he left for good. It began on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Six days later, a small story on page four of the Wall Street Journal bore the headline, Levitt & Sons Starts ‘Open Housing’ Policy as King ‘Memorial.’ The Journal reported that the proposal had been “drawn up by the Levitt management and approved ITT,” though failed to specify whether it had originated with Bill Levitt himself. Nevertheless, the announcement was viewed as a stunning admission of his past racist policies and the mark of sweeping changes to come. “Open housing was one of Dr. King’s greatest hopes,” said Levitt, “our action is a memorial to him.”

African-Americans were already living in his three Levittown communities, but Levitt & Sons now had eighteen communities being constructed around the world, from Illinois to France, and the new policy would ensure open housing in each. “It is high time that we take this stand,” Levitt said.

The company took out a full-page advertisement in cities including Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago to announce the plan as well. At the top of the ad was a large picture of Martin Luther King. Underneath the photo was the headline Levitt Pays Tribute to Dr. King in Deed – Not Empty Phrases. The ad continued, “This Company has adopted a new policy – effective at once – eliminating segregation any place it builds…We ask all our colleagues to adopt a similar policy without delay. The forces of bigotry and prejudice must not be permitted to prevail any longer, and we urge all builders – large and small alike – to do their part in making America once again the ideal of the world.”

It is unfortunate it took so long for Levitt & Sons to make this move. In the meantime, blacks were denied the opportunity to live in communities that were seen by some, including the Levitts, as the epitome of the American Dream.

The story in the book is fascinating. The Myers family, Bill, Daisy, and two kids, moved into the suburb in 1957 and were immediately faced with mobs, harassment, actions from the KKK, burning crosses, and indifferent local police. That all of this could happen in the northern suburb, one close to Trenton and not too far from Philadelphia, might surprise some. At the same time, such situations were not uncommon – the actions here reminded me of the Cicero, Illinois incident in 1951 when a black family moved to an apartment in the suburb just outside of Chicago.

Derek Jeter as an example of the kind of world MLK envisioned

A sociologist argues that Yankees star Derek Jeter is an example of the kind of world Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned:

The son of a white mother and a black father, Jeter experienced racial prejudice from both groups as a boy growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and playing in the minor leagues down south. Even as recently as 2006, according to O’Connor, Jeter received a “racially-tinged threat” in his mail at Yankee Stadium, a threat the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit considered serious enough to investigate…

But Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and black activist of the 1960s who has spoken and written extensively on the subject of race and professional athletics, explained Jeter’s appeal as a combination both of his unique attributes as an athlete and individual, and as a sign that the United States, throughout its history often bitterly divided along racial, ethnic and territorial lines, is moving toward an era of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s absolutely appropriate in the 21st century that a Derek Jeter should be the face of the premier baseball team in this country,” Edwards said. “When you talk about leadership and production and consistency and durability over the years, what he has achieved and what he has accomplished, and more than that, the way that he has done it is just absolutely phenomenal. He is one of our real athletic heroes and role models to the point that his race or ethnicity does not matter.”…

Derek Jeter’s way, the way of hard work, discipline and exemplary behavior, would have made Dr. King proud.

Tiger Woods, pre-scandal, may be another good example.

At the same time, this analysis makes me a little nervous. As some examples from Jeter’s own life suggest, we still have a ways to go. While it is notable that we now have visible multiracial leaders who appeal to a broad swath of America, at the same time, Jeter is a role model because he is successful at what does, going to multiple All-Star games and winning multiple World Series championships. Would Jeter be revered in the same way if he was from the Dominican Republic or from the south side of Chicago or from a farming community in North Dakota? What if he spoke about racial issues or wasn’t such a classy figure and “acted out”? In the end, does his celebrity make it easier for the average multiracial American? Are Americans only willing to look past Jeter’s background because he is a classy winner?

The transformation of MLK from controversial figure to national hero

While Martin Luther King, Jr. may now be revered as an important American, this wasn’t the case not so long ago:

The man himself was controversial, notes LaSalle University sociology professor Charles Gallagher. King — bound up with issues of racial and economic inequality that spotlight America’s worst sins — is a “Rorschach test,” Gallagher says, that people see in King what they want to see…

Part of the problem, says Gallagher, ironically lies in the progress of the African-American community since the heyday of the civil rights movement. The black middle class has grown, black culture is more mainstream, and the United States even has a black (or, as some would emphasize, biracial) president now.

“A lot of white America, if you look at the survey data, have come to believe that the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved,” he said.

And yet it wasn’t so long ago that even the prospect of a Martin Luther King Day engendered protests. The first bill to create a federal holiday failed in 1979; it took corporate activism and a “Happy Birthday” song from Stevie Wonder to raise its public profile. It was signed into law in 1983 and first observed in 1986 — though not every state went along with the idea. A late-’80s move by Arizona to rescind the holiday cost the state the 1993 Super Bowl.

This does not strike me as unusual: historical figures often get reduced to more specific narratives over time. In the United States, there is the sanitary King found in public settings, a man who wanted equality for all and who often is reduced to a few speeches or images. This King succeeded in the eyes of many Americans, raising basic questions about equality and leading to new laws that ended the Jim Crow era.

Then there is the real King, a real person with strengths and weaknesses who said a lot of challenging things. This King had great moments but also many struggles. Reading King’s big speeches, several of which can be found here, and writings is a worthwhile task that I would guess few Americans have undertaken. These words are still challenging today as we face questions about race and ethnicity, discrimination, and inequality. Additionally, King’s Christian foundation is a challenge in a nation where Christians are the largest religious group and might prefer to debate Tim Tebow’s outspokenness about his faith than consider the bigger problems we face.