In painstaking detail, Satter traces King’s fight with the powers-that-be in Chicago, namely Mayor Richard Daley and his Democratic machine. The issue was still open occupancy—the right of black families to live anywhere in the city. What King found was that Chicago’s segregation was nearly absolute and the battle against it much harder than his sclc had anticipated. Some even spoke about “going back to the relative tranquility of being a civil-rights worker in Alabama.”
Satter follows King and his organizers on their historic march through Cicero, a white Chicago suburb completely off limits to blacks. Earlier that year, in May 1966, a black teenager applying for a job in Cicero was killed by four white teens, who beat him so violently that his eyes were knocked out of his skull. Not surprisingly, Daley and his machine tried to dissuade King from marching there, calling it a suicide mission. King replied: “We’re not only going to walk in Cicero, we’re going to work and live there, too.”
The march went forward as planned, on Labor Day weekend. Braving a hail of rocks and bottles, King and his marchers worked their way through the neighborhood, protected by two thousand National Guardsmen and a thousand police officers. It was a victory, but arguably a partial one, and King pulled out of Chicago that fall.
Yet King’s fight—and the battle that Mark Satter had waged before him—was picked up by other local community organizers. Satter introduces us to them one by one. Walking among them is Saul Alinsky, the father of Chicago community organizing; Monsignor John J. Egan, who worked tirelessly for the poor and helped to train and inspire a cadre of young, dedicated Jesuits; and Ruth Wells, a contract buyer turned activist, who put her own home on the line to protest the unfair housing market in Chicago.
The final quarter of the book is dedicated to the founding of the Contract Buyers of Lawndale (CBL), a close-knit community group that eventually hired a team of lawyers and brought their contract-sale cases to trial. Though Satter never says so, it was a class-action suit her father should have been involved in: a high-profile, emotional showdown between the contract sellers and their prey.
Satter wears the mantle of historian throughout, keeping her emotions in check even when she discusses the members of her own family. It should be noted that when her father died in 1965, the author was only six years old. She has no direct memories of him or of her grandfather. But thanks to one of her brothers, Mark Satter’s legacy was preserved in a dozen large scrapbooks.
These scrapbooks, plus Satter’s interviews with the large cast of characters, are what give Family Properties the density of a good novel. And by means of this exhaustive and exhausting research, the author allows the personalities of the key players to shine. She never backs away from difficult territory, delving into cultural stereotypes of both the African-American and Jewish communities. She also addresses her father’s financial ruin, the slums he left behind, and a conservative, controversial article written by her brother David just after Mark Satter died.
At times, the writing slips into legalese and academic dryness (Satter is the chairman of the history department at Rutgers University in Newark). But the story itself is so politically and emotionally charged that the book becomes a page-turner, as the reader roots for the underdogs.
Mark Satter’s absence during the CBL trials makes the heart ache. But just as in the cases Satter championed, and the fight that King fought in Chicago, the final outcome of the CBL case is heartbreaking. Equally depressing is the fact that many of the local newspapers that covered and championed Satter’s battles are either gone or on the verge of disappearing. The Chicago Daily News, in particular, provided much of the first draft of history from which the author drew her tale. A historian writing fifty years from now may have the Internet, but detailed local coverage of events will be sorely missing.
Beryl Satter’s story is not without a glimmer of hope, however. Some of the CBL’s contracts were renegotiated while the cases wound their way through the courts, saving victims an average of $14,000 and, more importantly, allowing them to keep their homes. And the press coverage during the litigation alerted the African-American community to the contract sellers’ vicious practices.
There are other silver linings, too. The CBL’s raw housing data, which had been gathered meticulously by volunteers and lawyers and entered onto rudimentary computer cards, were ruled inadmissible in court at the time. However, the data have since been used by a new generation of community organizers, allowing them to challenge other discriminatory federal housing policies.