In reflecting on the character of the suburbs 50 years since the watershed "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," one is tempted by two paths of thought. One boasts, "Look how far we've come." The other scolds, "Look how far we have to go." The trick is to merge the two lines of thinking into one.
At the outset, we must acknowledge that the explosive growth of many suburbs in the 1960s and '70s was more a rejection of the implications in Martin Luther King's famous speech than even benign acceptance of them.
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The white Chicagoans flocking to bedroom communities like Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, Arlington Heights, Naperville, Libertyville and countless others weren't rushing there in hopes of establishing idyllic havens where "little black boys and black girls (could) join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." Many, though of course not all, were fleeing all those little black boys and girls and their families who themselves were pouring into Chicago from the South in hopes of finding jobs and housing.
And yet, there is evidence everywhere that seeds of those havens, at least, are sprouting.
Demographers have plenty to quarrel over regarding the pace and success of integration in the Chicago area -- depending on their agendas, they have alternately called Chicago both "the most segregated city in America" and an example of "hopeful progress" -- but no one can dispute that the suburbs are growing more diverse. In workplaces, shopping centers, restaurants and parks, citizens of every ethnicity abound. School districts from every corner of the suburbs count dozens of primary languages spoken at home by the children they serve. And through the courts, public policies and constantly evolving social attitudes, people are indeed increasingly judged more by, if not the content of their character at least the result of their behaviors than by the color of their skin.
But other concerns related to that day and to King's speech persist. There is, for example, that discomfiting line about the "fierce urgency of now" and a raft of statistics showing that in many material respects -- wages, unemployment and housing, particularly -- minorities remain on the whole nearly as troubled as they were in 1963.
In that year, the Herald, then a suburban weekly, engaged Sherwood Ross, public relations director of the Chicago Urban League, to pen a series of articles "designed to help us better understand and interpret current developments in race relations and their significance for northwest suburbs." And more than two weeks before King's famous address, Ross posed this challenge in a piece headlined, "Too Fast? Why Negroes Press Hard": "Finally, we must ask if 'the Negro revolution' has come fast enough for the nation's white population -- or are most of them so unused to the idea of living and working with Negroes that 'nothing will change them?'"
That white suburban residents have grown comfortable with the notion of living and working with not only African Americans but Americans of nearly any background seems all but undeniable. But such observations amount largely to King's "stone of hope." They are not signs that the racial "mountain of despair" -- still one of our nation's biggest challenges -- has been moved.
Although it is far from suburban, we have to look no further than the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case to see how easily all Americans still can be split down racial lines. On this very page today, columnist Kathleen Parker laments a racial atmosphere in which conversations -- even involving someone unthinkable in 1963, a black president of the United States -- devolve into disputes based on skin color.
So, when it comes to race relations, there is no question we still have far to go before we "transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." But we must also recognize that we have traveled quite a distance in the first half century since Aug. 28, 1963. Let's hope that by keeping both of those observations in mind, we will summon both the faith and the determination to reach the mountaintop in the next.