1960s white religious leaders: God told us to love our neighbors but did not mean to pick our neighbors for us

My history colleague Karen Johnson recently delivered the first Faith and Learning lecture on the Wheaton College campus titled “Place Matters:  The vocation of where we live and how we live there.” See the talk here.

One quote from her talk (roughly 35:50 into the talk) stuck with me. In opposing open housing efforts in the 1960s through the Illinois Association of Real Estate Boards, white religious leaders said:

“We don’t doubt the words of Him who said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but we do doubt, gentlemen, that He meant to disturb our American heritage and freedoms by picking these neighbors for us.”
Three features of this stand out:
1. I suspect this logic is still in use in many American communities today. Individual liberty about where to live is more prized than government intervention to help those who cannot move to certain places unless they have help (usually for reasons connected to social class and race and ethnicity). While it is couched in religious terms in this quote, I don’t think it needs religious backing to be widely supported by many suburbanites or wealthier residents.
2. Connected to the first point, few white and wealthier residents would today explicitly say that their opposition to affordable housing or government intervention to bring new people to communities is because of race and ethnicity (some government intervention in housing is more than acceptable as long as it helps the right people). They might talk in terms of social class or the character of the community. But, it still often comes down to race and who are desirable neighbors.
3. The mixing of American and religious values is strong. For American Christians, where do individual liberties end and Christian responsibilities begin? Which takes precedence? All religious groups have to think about which ideas and values to take on within particular contexts (whether nations, communities, or subgroups). A good portion of the critique of conservative Protestants often seems to involve the blurring of these lines: can these Christians see when their own stated religious commitments do not align with particular American commitments?

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.

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.