An electric atmosphere permeated the air as hundreds of people from a broad range of cultural backgrounds united on the Winnetka Village Green to celebrate Justice Day 2015. The event took place on Sunday, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to Chicago's North Shore suburban area to encourage residents to "live together as brothers and sisters," while also campaigning for fair housing during a time when realtors conspired to keep such neighborhoods segregated.
Speakers at the event included NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9), and former Chicago Tribune columnist and civil rights activist Carol Kleiman.
Kleiman participated in housing marches in Chicago as well as Selma, Alabama. She noted her astonishment at the hatred she witnessed, but added that it wasn't unfamiliar.
"It was shocking to see the hatred on the faces of young white boys waving their confederate flags," said Kleiman. "But the faces down South, the faces of hatred, looked very much like faces I saw up North, here in Chicago."
Racial discrimination wasn't the only issue discussed. Tuyet Le, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, detailed the challenges she faced while attending Northwestern University due to a physical disability.
Le said the size of the campus and the lack of disability services made studying far more difficult for her. She grew emotional when recalling an instance in which she struggled to find a way to reach the assistant dean's office, which was on the second floor of an inaccessible building.
"I remember standing outside that day wondering how I'd get into that building," said Le. "I remember the anxiety of feeling alone."
"I remember that feeling that makes you shirk your aspirations," she added.
The America Disabilities Act (ADA) passed the following summer and Le was excited at the possibilities it might open up for her. But her excitement was deflated when she returned to school the following fall and asked the assistant dean how the ADA would impact the campus.
The dean told Le that she didn't think anything would change, as the buildings were historic and ramps were expensive.
"Her message was clear. Money was more important than access and opportunity," said Le. "She was wrong, things did change. The barriers I faced were knocked down at Northwestern's campus and all over this country."
Later, keynote speaker Hilary Shelton took the stage, and said that while there have been great strides over the years, there is still more work to be done.
He thanked the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro for pursuing equal housing.
"We're delighted that agency is led the way it is," said Shelton. "Because it's under Castro that we talked about disparate impact, that determines whether someone is being discriminated against."
Shelton said that up until recently, one would have to prove intent to claim discrimination. But a recent Supreme Court win made it possible to challenge housing decisions.
An NAACP booth at the event offered attendees a civil rights federal legislative report card, detailing the voting history of Illinois elected officials in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Shelton called out politicians that claim support, but don't vote accordingly.
"They'll remember your name, they'll remember your spouse's name, they'll kiss you on the cheek," said Shelton. "Then they'll go back to Washington and vote away every single promise they made for you."
Conversely, Shelton had high praise for fellow speaker and Congresswoman Schakowsky, who he says has been a great help to the NAACP.
"She carries our agenda," said Shelton of Schakowsky. "There's no one that votes better."
Congresswoman Schakowsky said that while the North Shore is now welcoming of minorities, that has not always been the case.
She cited news stories from the 1920's documenting the efforts of Wilmette residents trying to stop the "invasion" of African Americans.
"Overt housing discrimination existed on the North Shore well into the 1960's," said Schakowsky. "Real estate advertisements sometimes made it clear that non-whites and non-Christians would not be considered."
Interestingly, when Martin Luther King came to the area in 1965, he slept in the basement of Schakowsky's synagogue because hotels at the time were not open to African Americans.
Referencing recent events in Charleston and elsewhere, Schakowsky said there is still a lot of work to do in battling racial discrimination in America.
She praised the removal of the confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse, but said it also highlighted the support that still exists for the racially-charged symbol.
"Earlier this month, the appropriations bill to fund the interior department and our national parks was pulled by Speaker Boehner," said Schakowsky. "Because one hundred republicans said they would oppose it if language banning the confederate battle flag from national cemeteries was kept in the bill."
Schakowsky says this indicates that while racial prejudice may be subtler, it still exists.
"It is clear that while racial discrimination may be better hidden or even unintentional, it still exists all over the country," said Schakowsky.
She went on to thank the mothers who organized the North Shore Summer Project so many years ago. One of those women, Nina Raskin, was in attendance, and spoke to Progress Illinois about her involvement.
Raskin says one of the first times she experienced racial prejudice firsthand was when she accompanied her husband on a business trip to Dallas.
While travelling to an art gallery she was shocked to realize she was on a segregated bus.
A young African American man got on the bus and refused to sit in the back. The bus driver chastised him until he finally decided to get off.
"It was so shocking to me to experience this first hand, that I think it was one of the early experiences that led me to my involvement in the movement."
After moving from New York City to Chicago, Raskin experienced anti-Semitism first hand in while trying to obtain housing. She said she witnessed housing discrimination at an even greater scale when it came to African Americans.
"Evanston was a segregated community back then. There was a movie theatre and African Americans had to sit in the balcony."
All of these events coalesced and eventually led to the founding of the North Shore Summer Project in the early 1960's.
The group eventually drew the attention of the larger civil rights movement and Dr. King. In July of 1965, he came to Winnetka Village Green and spoke to a gathering of 10,000. Soon after the gathering, federal fair housing legislation was enacted.
The North Shore Summer Project joined forces with more than 70 community partners to pull together Sunday's events, and plans to continue to "offer new opportunities for residents throughout the Northern Suburbs to join together to advocate for social, economic and housing justice.