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.

And though his name is never mentioned in the text, just around the historical corner is another Chicago community organizer, the most famous since Martin Luther King Jr. marched through Cicero. It’s ironic that President Obama’s first task in office will not be fighting overt racism, but cleaning up yet another mess that the mortgage industry has left in its wake. (Between 2004 and 2006, the city in America with the most residents holding subprime loans was Chicago.)

In her conclusion, written just before publication, Satter draws direct parallels between the contract sellers of the 1950s and 1960s and the predatory lending practices of the last few years. “ ‘Ghetto lending’ practices of the 1960s have metastasized,” she quotes one legal scholar as saying. “We are all in the ghetto now.” And how will we escape? Before his death, Mark Satter argued that the federal government needed to right its many wrongs by creating “job opportunities for all who would work” through a WPA-like program. It seems to be one argument he may finally win. 

 

Helene Stapinski is the author of Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History.