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.

More on MLK in Chicago in 1966

After reading about Mayor Richard J. Daley in American Pharaoh, I learned more about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time in Chicago in 1966. His time in the city was short but very interesting. Here are the things that stuck out to me:

1. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had quite a debate about whether they should bring the Civil Rights Movement to Chicago or not. Several issues were at play: they had won legal battles in the South eliminating legal segregation but it was unclear whether they could win against informal (yet very established) segregation in the North. Also, Daley’s reputation was well-known. King decided to come to Chicago anyway over the arguments of others.

2. King based his movement out of the West Side of Chicago, living (though not all the time) in a tenement apartment in Lawndale. The West Side was a newer ghetto created when the population of the Black Belt became too large and other parts of the city were closed off to blacks. King set up there in part to avoid the black politicians who always supported Daley on the South Side. These politicians were willing to support Daley and the machine in return for being able to control their own wards. Thus, King was not fully supported by the black community when he operated in Chicago.

3. Daley played both sides successfully in 1966 and throughout his career. While Daley became known for supporting police brutality against anti-war protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention, he tried to co-opt many of King’s efforts. Even though he came from an ethnic white neighborhood, he never fully came out and said blacks couldn’t move into such neighborhoods. At the same time, the city’s policies were aimed at avoiding this (particularly decisions about public housing). Daley controlled enough of the black vote on the South Side that he never had to support Civil Rights. Interestingly, his son gave a similar response to a question about segregation in Chicago earlier this year: he started talking about how Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and immigrants and they all move around and seek a better life.

4. King and his followers tried to reach out to Chicago’s gangs, not really a concern for the movement in the South, but this proved difficult. By this point, more gang members and others thought violence was a better response.

5. Daley met with King several times with a number of other interested parties present. These meetings didn’t go anywhere fast.

6. At a march in Marquette Park on August 5, 1966, King was struck by a rock in the head and knocked down. Others yelled, “Kill him, kill him” while “another heckler threw a knife at King.” After escaping the scene, King said, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the south, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago…I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” This is one of those stories (and there are many others) that should disabuse people of the notion that the North had racial harmony).

7. Jesse Jackson was involved in this process as he had been attending seminary.

8. The final summit between the city and the Chicago Freedom Movement began August 17, 1966. After the first day, both Daley and King were unhappy about the outcome. After Daley asked for and got a moratorium from a judge on marches in Chicago neighborhoods, the Freedom Movement marched outside the city and threatened to march on Cicero on August 28. After more negotiations, the final meeting was held on August 26 and both Daley and King claimed a victory with the final agreement.

9. Ultimately, King and the Chicago Freedom Movement saw little change in the actions of Daley and the city. From my own view, it appears like Daley was able to outlast King: he said just enough without really promising big changes. King, perhaps caught off guard by the differences between Chicago and the South, could only force Daley to negotiate (and marching in Cicero was the big lever King had – one can only imagine if a major march had occurred) but not to capitulate.

Fascinating reading.

Read my earlier post about this from MLK Day 2011 here.

MLK in Chicago

While many of the tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. talk about the important marches and speeches in the early 1960s regarding civil rights (and the subsequent legislation), the last three years of King’s life are less well-known. Having grown up in the Chicago area, I was not aware that King spent a significant amount of time in Chicago in 1966 until I was doing some research in recent years. The Encyclopedia of Chicago has a brief summary:

But in the summer of 1965, the nature of King’s connection to Chicago changed. Responding to requests from local civil rights forces, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined the fight against school superintendent Benjamin Willis and Chicago’s segregated public schools. By the fall, SCLC had allied with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations to launch a campaign to end slums in the city, which would become known as the Chicago Freedom Movement.

King relied on his lieutenant James Bevel to energize the first phases of the campaign, but in January 1966 he captured national headlines when he moved his family into a dingy apartment in the West Side ghetto. It was not until June that King and his advisors, under pressure to produce results, settled on a focus for the Chicago movement. King himself participated in two dramatic marches into all-white neighborhoods during a two-month open-housing campaign during the summer of 1966. These fair-housing protests brought real estate, political, business, and religious leaders to the conference table for “summit” negotiations.

In late August, King and Mayor Richard J. Daley announced that an agreement had been reached: the marches would stop, while city leaders promised to promote fair housing. King hoped that the “summit” accord would be an important step toward making Chicago an open city, but black militants denounced the settlement and the Daley administration never fulfilled its promises.

Several things are notable about this effort:

1. This was a large-scale movement in the North. Most depictions of the Civil Rights Movement imply that all the action or the problems that needed to be solved were in the South. This was not the case then or now. Indeed, measures of housing segregation show that the most segregated cities in terms of race are still in the North.

2. Even with the passing of Civil Rights legislation, this issue of housing discrimination and segregation is one that has plagued America. While the housing discrimination of today is less overt than that of the past (exclusionary zoning, differential treatment, and high prices today vs. redlining, blockbusting, and restrictive covenants in the past), King’s efforts are notable. Of his efforts in Chicago, King said something like “if we can solve the issue of housing in Chicago, we can solve it anywhere.” Chicago was notorious then for its segregation and this is still the case today.

3. Perhaps we don’t hear about these issues from King’s later years, such as housing or his thoughts about Vietnam or his efforts on behalf of labor, because they don’t seem to have clear solutions. Civil rights is an issue that seemed to have been solved with the Civil Rights Acts (though this isn’t quite the case). But housing is a long-standing concern in many cities and metropolitan areas. Viewpoints on Vietnam are still mixed and get brought up again in discussions of current wars.

4. This part of Chicago’s history is not one that is widely talked about. King and his followers led numerous marches in 1966 that were met with much resistance, particularly when marching in white neighborhoods. Chicago and the region has a longer history of negative incidents: one, in particular, in Cicero in the 1950s is often cited as a black family who moved into an apartment was met by an angry mob (including many housewives) who firebombed the apartment building. As the Encyclopedia entry suggested, the older Mayor Daley did meet with King but didn’t follow through on his promises. These sorts of moments are often scrubbed or ignored in history as they don’t reflect too favorably on communities. At the same time, we need to know about these to help understand the present reality.