The Civil Rights era of the 1960’s is at the forefront this month as we celebrate the birthday and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Stephen Blumberg, a resident of La Costa Glen retirement community in Carlsbad, Calif., remembers the struggle for equal rights and fair housing in Chicago as if it were yesterday. It was the summer of 1966 and Dr. King was leading marches throughout the city to protest the lack of quality housing for blacks. As a result of Dr. King’s demonstrations, a high-powered agency known as the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities was formed. The council was a blend of numerous civil rights groups in the area.
The Leadership Council hired Blumberg as their first employee. As the new director for community relations for the council, Blumberg also established and served as the first president of the board of directors for the Lake County Community Action Project which was the anti-poverty program for Lake County, Ill.
The injustices against blacks in Illinois hit Blumberg personally. His activism began when he was working for an apartment company in Waukegan just north of Chicago where he oversaw leasing for the property. At the time, the company would only lease to white people and renting to blacks was against company policy. Blumberg disregarded the policy and rented apartments on a non-discriminatory basis. He built the occupancy to 100 percent – 14 percent of which was non-white. He worked hard to soothe the fears of many of his white tenants who were nervous about living among black people. According to Blumberg, there was never any racial tension in the apartment community.
But when Blumberg’s employer learned he had violated the company policy, he was fired. The timing coincided with the summer of ‘66, leading to his new career with the Leadership Council.
When asked about his motivation for spearheading change, Blumberg said that he was influenced at an early age by his mother.
“I grew up in an integrated community and never saw any racial prejudice,” he said. “I always had a strong affinity for equal opportunity. Even as a child, I realized we’re all just people and shouldn’t be worried about what color we are.”
Blumberg, his wife Wendy (who lives with him at La Costa Glen) and their four young children moved to Manhattan Beach, Calif., in 1970 where he pursued a PhD in urban studies at USC. Blumberg then taught as a professor for 26 years at Cal State Long Beach, where he developed a program of “humanistic guidelines” to educate students about the need to develop equal opportunity public policy. Blumberg’s lifelong commitment to equal rights is documented in his autobiography, A Satisfying Life.