An Activist Reflects on Racism 50 Years Later

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Activist Sally Olds (inset) helped organize Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 anti-racism rally, his first in front of an all-white crowd, in Winnetka, Ill., in 1965, and reflects on civil rights in America 50 years later. Above are some of Olds' fellow North Shore Summer Project activists at the event's 50th anniversary. (Photo courtesy Sally Wendkos Olds)
Activist Sally Wendkos Olds (inset), who helped organize Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 anti-racism rally, his first in an all-white suburb, in Winnetka, Ill., reflects on civil rights in America 50 years later. Above are some of Olds’ fellow North Shore Summer Project activists at the event’s 50th anniversary. (Photo courtesy Sally Wendkos Olds)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On Sunday, July 26, the 2015 Justice Project: The March Continues rally was held in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Ill.. The event was a 50th anniversary commemoration of the North Shore Summer Project’s (NSSP) 1965 rally that brought 10,000 people together to listen to the stirring words of Martin Luther King Jr.

That 1965 rally was the largest gathering ever before on the Winnetka Village Green, and the first time Dr. King ever spoke in an all-white suburb. One of the NSSP fair housing activists and rally organizers was my mom, Sally Wendkos Olds.

Mom wasn’t a political figure. She was a white, Jewish mother with three little kids who wanted them to grow up in a just society, which included everyone having the right to live where they wanted to. In 1965, she was the publicity director and contact person for the event. She also wrote a follow-up article for a Chicago church-published magazine called Community.

Mom raised me to never discriminate against anyone based on the color of their skin or their religion. That is the only message I knew, so I was colorblind, and I’m glad. Sadly, in 1975, when I was in Weber Middle School in Port Washington, Long Island, on separate occasions a handful of people called me a “nigger lover” because some of my friends were black. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that anybody actually still thought that way; that was my introduction to racism.

Read more: Film of Martin Luther King Jr. at Newcastle University Found

In the house I grew up, Mom had a framed letter from Coretta Scott King dated Nov. 10, 1966. It was a letter of thanks. “I would like to thank you very much for your interest in and support of my recent Freedom Concert in Chicago,” Mrs. King wrote. “Much of the success of these concerts depends upon persons such as yourself who devote time and energy in their promotion and support.”

The letter Olds received from King's wife, Coretta Scott King. (Photo courtesy Sally Wendkos Olds)
The letter Olds received from King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. (Photo courtesy Sally Wendkos Olds)

It is a terrible stain on this great nation that racism still runs rampant here. I’d never bash America because I feel lucky to have been born in such a privileged country, but it is painful to hear what goes on outside of my insulated world of diversity and liberals in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, where almost anything goes and people of all colors, religions and sexual preferences are welcome.

On June 1, The Guardian wrote:

An analysis of public records, local news reports and Guardian reporting found that 32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25% of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15% of white people killed.”

#BlackLivesMatter should not have to be a hashtag — it should be a given.

And don’t even get me started on the disgraceful Confederate flag issue. It took the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston to order South Carolina to take down its offensive Confederate flag — the utmost symbol of racism and slavery.

Fair housing fights are still in the news

One month ago, the Supreme Court endorsed a broad interpretation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. They agreed with a Texas-based nonprofit corporation that the Department of Housing and Community Affairs and its officers had “caused continued segregated housing patterns by allocating too many tax credits to housing in predominantly black inner-city areas and too few in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods.”

After the Supreme Court’s decision June 25, The New York Times wrote:

“Much progress remains to be made in our nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in the 5-to-4 ruling. “The court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the nation toward a more integrated society.”

I asked Mom about this past weekend’s event in Chicago and how she felt about how far we still have to go to heal this nation. “The North Shore Summer Project opened a lot of people’s eyes to the unfairness of restricting communities on the basis of color or religion,” she said. “Although I received hate mail from some of my neighbors, the NSSP found that most residents in these northern suburbs would be very willing to have nonwhite neighbors, and that it was the realtors who made, and acted on, other assumptions.”

Concerned, I asked Mom if the hate mail had scared her. “Instead of frightening me, it inspired me to do more, since it let me know that my efforts and those of my fellow activists were being noticed,” she replied.

That’s rather impressive, don’t you think? Way to go, Mom!

When I asked if anything stands out in her mind about this 2015 event she said, “In one way it was dismaying that 50 years later, at this anniversary, we still needed to be reminded about the importance of fair housing, as in the stirring words of Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington [D.C.] director. He reminded the audience how crucial housing is in determining the schools children go to, the services residents can receive, and the building of personal assets throughout a lifetime. But,” she added, “the speakers acknowledged good news, too, like the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that building affordable housing in areas that perpetuate segregation is illegal, even if intent to do so cannot be shown. Our nation is making progress.”

In 1965, the Winnetka Historical Society wrote, “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.’”

Amen to that, Dr. King.

Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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