Growing up in small-town Georgetown, Ill., in the 1940s, Clyde Brooks wasn't allowed to be a Boy Scout, eat in the dining room in restaurants or use the local gas station.
When he decided to move to the suburbs in 1964, some of his more "liberal" acquaintances recommended he move into his new home in Elk Grove Village at about 10 a.m. -- when most of the men in the neighborhood would be at work.
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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated the end to such segregationist institutions as separate drinking fountains and bathrooms and seats on the bus, but attitudes toward blacks in many circles were much slower to change.
Brooks, now a retired pastor and president of the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations, has been championing the cause of inclusion -- not just of race but of culture and gender -- in the suburbs ever since. And for that half-decade of service to the betterment of all of us, Brooks will be one of the people recognized tonight in Hoffman Estates at the 13th annual celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King would have been 85 years old.
The dinner is attended by hundreds and celebrates businesses, religious and community leaders and individuals who make a difference by chipping away at racial and culture walls that persist between us. As Brooks will tell you, we've come a long way since King's day. But we still have work to do.
The suburbs are a far different place today than they were when Brooks arrived on the scene. Cook County, for instance, had 5.1 million residents, according to the 1960 census -- roughly the same number as today. But the faces look much different now.
In 1960, just 887,000 were considered nonwhite. It's difficult to zero in on just how much those numbers have shifted, given significant changes in the way the Census Bureau categorizes us, but in the 2010 census Cook County had 2.8 million whites, 1.2 million blacks, 1.2 million Latinos and 323,000 Asians.
As recently as the 1970s, many corners of the suburbs were as white as that 1960 census suggests. For instance, Prospect High School's freshman class in 1976 had 585 members -- including two Asian kids, one Latino and no blacks. Zero.
With the influx of blacks, various Asian groups and the rapid expansion of Latinos in the suburbs in recent years, not just skin color but language and culture have diversified the suburbs in a way we haven't seen since the big European migrations of generations ago.
Some lament that the suburbs aren't what they used to be, where everyone essentially looked, sounded and acted alike and celebrated the same holidays.
In retrospect, how boring that must have been. We all have such a great opportunity now to share and learn from people whose customs different from our own and can enrich our lives and theirs in the process.