The biggest defeat of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was when he tried to speak in the Chicago suburbs of Kenilworth and Cicero in 1966 and '67, said author James Loewen. King was never allowed to speak in Kenilworth, and he and his marchers were met by such violent animosity at the border of Cicero that they never made it into town, in spite of the 2,000 police escorting them.
What these two towns had in common, said Loewen, was that they were "sundown towns."
Loewen, the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "Lies Across America," was speaking at the Green Hedges School for Sunday's service of the Northern Virginia Ethical Society, the local branch of a humanistic religious and educational organization called the American Ethical Union. He had come to Vienna to speak about his latest book, "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Racism in America."
A sundown town, he explained, was a town where blacks — and often Jews, Asians and other minorities — were not allowed in town after sunset. Most, he said, were bordered by signs reading, "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you in [name of town]."
Loewen said that as he researched towns with such histories, "to my astonishment, I found 472 sundown towns in Illinois alone," and he asserted that there were about 10,000 such towns across the country, "which makes it actually a majority of all towns in the United States outside the South."
Southerners generally did not understand the concept, he said. "In fact, they thought it was crazy: 'Why would you make the maid leave? Why would you make your agricultural labor force leave?' It made no sense to them."
Hence, there have been few sundown towns in Virginia, and most of those were in Appalachia, said Loewen. However, there have been several such towns in Maryland.
He pointed out that the Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase, Md., is surrounded on three sides by houses. This, he said, is because the area in which it stands was originally intended as a working-class district. But when public transportation improved, Chevy Chase decided to become a sundown town and let the black labor force come into town by trolley. Working-class housing development was suddenly stopped in town.
OTHER SUNDOWN TOWNS in Maryland included all of Garrett County and several islands in the Chesapeake.
Virginia suburbs found other ways of dealing with minorities. "In 1890, the town council of Falls Church voted to give away most of the black part of town to Fairfax County," said Loewen. This was the area between Tinner Hill and Arlington Boulevard. In 1915, Falls Church passed an ordinance barring blacks from buying or renting homes in blocks that were predominantly white or vice versa. "These ordinances swept through the South right about this time," he said.
"You don't have to be a sociologist to understand that it's not going to take very long before the entire city is segregated and there's not an interracial block left," he said.
These ordinances, however, were soon declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because they interfered with whites' right to sell to the highest bidder.
According to Loewen, the half-century between 1890 and 1940 was the low point for race relations in the U.S. During the period of Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War and lasted until almost 1880, blacks ended up all over the country.
"But, then between 1890 and 1940 commences what I call the Great Retreat," said Loewen. "Blacks left town after town, even county after county, across the north as they went sundown." By 1940, he said, there were about 18 entire counties in which blacks could not live.
Sundown suburbs, he said ran a little later, from about 1905 to 1968.
Methods of enforcement varied. Sometimes there were outright ordinances. Often clauses were placed in the individual property deeds, some straightforward and others circumspect. One example he gave was a deed mandating that no one of a race "with worse mortality rates than the white race" could occupy the house.
Perhaps more often, blacks or other minorities were simply harassed into leaving by the authorities, the businesses and the general population.
Many towns, said Loewen, remained sundown towns long after '68.
He recounted a story about New Market, Iowa, where a band was invited to play at a fall festival in 1985, and one of the band members was black. As dark neared, a town council member approached the band to tell them a "racial incident" had just been averted. "The sheriff just reminded me that this is a sundown town," the council member said. "But the majority of the town council is here tonight at the party, and so we got together and we suspended the ordinance for tonight."
As of the 2000 census, New Market was not home to a single black household.
He mentioned an Illinois town called Anna. "In 1909, Anna drove out its black population, and from that day to this, Anna has been known as 'Ain't No Niggers Allowed' — A-N-N-A — by the people who live there."
As for Kenilworth, where King never managed to speak, the only black family to live there moved in around 1970 and has since left, said Loewen.
One of the negative effects of this phenomenon on whites is that it has enabled racism, he said, often in those with enough influence to live in wealthy, all-white areas. He pointed out that many U.S. presidents have grown up in areas not accessible to minorities. For example, the current President George Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, "spent many years in the same sundown town, that being Highland Park, Texas," said Loewen.
The first black family moved into Highland Park two years ago, he said.
"What's worst of all is the impact on the social system," said Loewen. He pointed to Detroit as the most egregious example. There have been rigid sundown codes in "almost every suburb touching Detroit and almost every suburb further out," he said. Dearborn, for example, had sundown policies in place, both official and unofficial, until the 1990s.
He said the urban blight in the city of Detroit is, in part, a result of these policies.
Loewen concluded by saying that the fact that his is the first book on this subject may be testimony to the extent to which the problem still exists. Books tend to be written about problems after the problems have been solved. He said he wants to open a dialogue.
"If you know about a sundown town, please come and tell me about it or e-mail me about it," he said. "I'm going to eventually have a Web site about sundown towns, and we can try to out every one of them and bring about justice in America."
"I'VE ALWAYS REMEMBERED when Marian Anderson came to sing at Lawrence University," said Jim Perdue when the audience was invited to respond. Perdue had lived in Wisconsin near Appleton, where the university is located. "And here this famous person, she had to leave that town at the end of the night and be driven back to Milwaukee," he said. "It turns out that Appleton, Wisc., was one of these sundown towns."
Marianne Moerman said she was living in Chevy Chase in the early 1960s and put her house up for sale. "We had African Americans look at our house, and the uproar on our block was unbelievable," she said.
Hank Gassner pointed out that until the 1960s, the Federal Housing Authority would only give loans to "homogeneous" neighborhoods, which encouraged racism among neighbors for monetary reasons.
"Real estate agents are still involved in this type of steering, and there are organizations that use couples to test different reactions to white and black buyers," he said. "And this is something that maybe our public affairs committee could usefully get involved in."
Asked what else local citizens could do, Loewen suggested that Virginians could petition for a "residents rights act," whereby, if a town is found to have a sundown background and still have sundown town demographics, two complaints about unfair housing practices would result in consequences. "It may be that all real estate transactions have to be monitored" following the complaints, he said. "Another thing that could happen is that you lose your state income tax exemption for mortgage interest."
However, in Virginia, this would only affect a relatively small number of towns, mostly in the west of the state, he reminded. But, he said, this would also make the act easier to pass.