Among the 150 people who attended a retrospective of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 speech in Winnetka, which was held on King Day in 2007, were a group of eighth graders from Washburne Jr. High School and their social studies teacher, Cecilia Gigiolio.
Little did they know as they arrived that they would be inspired to undertake an organizing campaign to get a Dr. King memorial on the Winnetka Village Green – and achieve their goal in only six months. Speaking as a veteran community organizer, I was floored by their quick and sure success. I was also impressed by the way they internalized this piece of Winnetka and civil rights movement history for housing justice.
Four years later, graduating from New Trier High School this past spring, did this experience continue to move them? In our outcomes-oriented culture, education and advocacy can seem diffuse, abstract and even a waste of time. When trying to change hearts, embracing instead of shunning the “Other,” how does lifting up history matter? What is the impact of civic engagement on behavior, especially on young adults?
Having worked closely with Gigiolio and her students at the time, I decided to find out.
The campaign for a monument to Dr. King and Fair Housing in Winnetka
The Winnetka Historical Society and the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs organized an educational program on that day in 2007 to raise awareness of an important time in Winnetka’s history, not only of Dr. King first speech in a white suburb, but about the North Shore Summer Project, a grassroots group of Winnetka, Wilmette and other North Shore residents and clergy who coalesced in 1961 to promote open housing.
What Gigiolio’s students, along with others, learned was that at the time, it was okay to discriminate in the housing market against “Negroes, Jews, and Orientals.” Galvanized by the mulitracial Mississippi Summer Project voter registration drive of African Americans, a group of North Shore women decided to tackle the most pressing civil rights issue up north: housing discrimination. In the summer of ’65, they surveyed homeowners on the North Shore about their preferences, picketed in front of real estate officies, and invited Dr. King to speak on the Winnetka Village Green. He accepted. From 8,000 to 10,000 people rallied on that day, July 25, 1965. What the crowd heard him say, among other things, was: “History has presented us with a cosmic challenge… We must now fight together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
In April 1968, barely a week after Dr. King was assassinated, fair housing became the law of the land when President Johnson signed Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act into law.
These Washburne 13-year-olds were galvanized by the 2009 program to commemorate what was an important, but then little-known historical event on the North Shore – the first time Dr. King addressed an audience in an all-white suburb – with an historical marker on the Village Green. As Gigiolio told Susan Whitcomb, then president of the Historical Society, “I explained the potential hardship of taking on this kind of endeavor and the amount of work involved. I was pleased that after all of my explanations the students were just as eager as they had been previously.”
Within a week, Gigiolio invited me to speak to her class about the North Shore Summer Project and fair housing. I told them about community organizing, and the importance of gaining the support of the key stakeholders in the community to succeed. With the help of different students, I demonstrated to the class what differential treatment in the housing market actually looks like.
Over the next few months, they held a petition drive, and spoke to local groups ranging from the Rotary Club to the Veterans of Foreign Wars to gain their support, since the latter’s World War I memorial was the only structure on the Green. They organized their parents to join them at a meeting of the Winnetka Village Council. They invited David James, who became the first African American homeowner in the Village in 1967, to lend his vocal support. Several students spoke out at the Council meeting, emphasizing that “this be known.”
The village president of the time, Edmund Woodbury, was moved, and said that the village council had never seen such a ”thrilling” heartfelt campaign as this. The Council unanimously voted to support the Dr. King monument. President Woodbury reminded the students to “keep in mind the value of community service.” He said that the plaque would “remind us of the values that Dr. King advocated for fair housing,” and said, “We’re a better country because we look at ourselves as a more diverse group.”
While the class still had to fundraise for the plaque and structure itself, they won the moral support of the community.
They held a dedication ceremony for the monument, which bears a likeness of Dr. King, at the Village Green on July 25, 2007, 42 years to the day since the rally and likely on the exact spot where King spoke. It was a beautiful evening, attended by village and township officials, members of the original North Shore Summer Project, James, and scores of other supporters. But the true VIPs were the recently graduated Washburne students and Gigiolio, many of whom made speeches. Interfaith’s photostory on the dedication remains one of our most visited web pages.
Four years later, what does the campaign mean for these high school graduates?
As the students were about to graduate New Trier High School in June 2011, I sent them a brief survey from the Interfaith Housing Center to gauge the extent to which the experience stayed with them through high school. We sent the four-question survey out to the 39 students with a return envelope. We told them their identities would be kept confidential and responses only reported in the aggregate.
Eight students returned the survey, including the student who believes s/he came up with the idea “to acknowledge MLK’s presence in Winnetka.”
Several continue to reflect on the history, with one saying they learned “equal housing in Winnetka” is law “despite remaining lack of diversity.” Another wrote that the experience “made me appreciate [the] everyday relevance of historical relevance.”
Still another wrote: “I am more aware of people’s rights and when rights/rights protection is lacking. I may study civil rights in college.”
However, it was the experience of organizing more than the history itself that most resonated for these students, from “people skills and how to approach a stranger,” to fundraising, to petitioning, to “structure and plaque designing.” At least one student applied these skills at New Trier, “raising awareness and money for water and sanitation systems in Africa.”
Six of the eight students said that the most significant lesson they drew from the experience was the importance of persistence:
- It taught me to not give up on something because it’s hard – many people thought we couldn’t do it.
- Things that require lots of work and persistence are often very rewarding, possibly proportionately.
- I learned to be persistent when fighting for something you believe in.
They learned that dreams can be achieved through hard work:
- I learned that anything can be made possible, even when you’re a young 8th grade student.
- I learned that people tend to not really think outside themselves, individually and within groups, but once some do it, it can be infectious, for better or worse.
Ultimately, these students surprised themselves by their own accomplishment.
When knowledge of history and civil rights converge with relationship-building and grassroots activism, the experience can be transformative:
- The campaign for the monument was a great learning experience that influenced my values and thoughts.
- To this day, you can see the product of our labor on the Village Green. Dr. King’s commemorative plaque stands on a marble pedestal for all to see.
- Firstly, my teacher, Ms. Gigiolio, deserves major kudos for turning our idea into a reality. Secondly, I am honored to have been a part of the MLK campaign and to this day, I still tell people about what my social studies class accomplished. There are just not enough words to describe what this whole experience has meant to me!
- It was all worth it.