Chicago suburb faces rising stack of civil-rights suits

For the West Chicago suburb of Cicero, the 1980s are fast becoming the decade in which the town tries to defend itself against a rapid-fire series of civil-rights lawsuits.

Cicero currently faces eight such suits. Filers include the US Department of Justice, individuals, and now the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. The leadership council, a Chicago-based fair-housing group that has had a long string of legal successes, filed the two newest lawsuits Wednesday.

For a suburb nestled next to a major city that is 40 percent black, Cicero is notably white. Once the headquarters of mobster Al Capone, the community was largely settled by East European immigrants. Currently not one of its 400 municipal workers is black. Though close to 5,000 blacks work in other jobs in Cicero, only 74 - less than 1 percent - of its 61,232 residents are black.

The community has had a lengthy history of civil-rights conflict. One of the most publicized examples occurred in 1951 when Harvey Clark Jr., then a young black Chicago bus driver, tried to move his wife and family into a Cicero apartment. A mob of several thousand whites gathered in front of their building as police watched. The family's furniture was set on fire and many of their other possessions destroyed. The Clarks, who were awarded $2,500 in damages for the incident, now live in Little Rock, Ark.

Cicero officials, while conceding that residents care a great deal about property values and that the town has foregone some federal funds rather than accept what it saw as cumbersome strings, staunchly insist that Cicero is not guilty of racial discrimination. They argue their community has been unfairly singled out. They say they intend to fight the court suits all the way.

It was only after long negotiations with Cicero on charges of violating the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act that the Justice Department formally filed suit last January. Contending that town officials have threatened and physically harassed would-be black residents, the Justice Department suit is the first to combine charges of both job and housing discrimination.

Two of the other suits pending were filed by Ronnie Stackhouse, a black restaurant manager who moved to Cicero a year ago. His car was vandalized, and he received threatening phone calls and street jeers. When he tried to report to police last spring that his car had been firebombed, he says he was arrested, searched, and jailed without being told of his rights or allowed to make a phone call. Two more of the suits pending against Cicero also were filed by blacks complaining of police brutality.

Data in the leadership council fair-housing suits may well be cited in the Justice Department case as further evidence of what council executive director Kale Williams calls a ''pervasive pattern of discrimination'' in Cicero. A search to find apartments conducted by black and white testers from the council produced a marked contrast. Posing as home seekers and making the same rounds, always by appointment, the white testers were shown 69 apartments while the blacks were shown only 13. Blacks were also frequently told any application required a deposit.

''We'll apply unrelenting legal pressure,'' says Mr. Williams. ''But we think the time has come for the good people of Cicero . . . and we think they're in the majority . . . to step forward and begin to cooperate. . . . Our goal is to open every community to black home seekers.''

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