Dad’s Fight Against Prejudice, and Meeting Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.
On Monday, MLK day, I wrote about my dad on my Facebook Wall.
Hanging on my office wall is this picture of him in his vestments, with my grandparents, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. Harvey Peters was a Lutheran minister who fought housing discrimination in the Detroit suburbs where I grew up. I said in my post “I am grateful to him, and my mom, for the values they instilled in me and my sisters.” I truly am.
The post received a lot of Likes! (Okay, four were from my mom and three sisters.) But that day many people wanted to know more about him. I am honored to tell you more about Harvey.
In the late 1960s, my dad was the President of a group of interfaith clergy that worked on matters of common concern; one was housing discrimination.
They shared stories and suspicions of segregation, and brought to light that many real estate contracts contained “covenants” precluding home sales in certain neighborhoods to non-whites. They gathered stories from Jewish people and blacks who were steered away from neighborhoods like Southfield and nearby Lathrup, both all-white Detroit suburbs. He and a woman working with their group once actually posed as a Jewish couple and met with a realtor who only agreed to show them homes in “predetermined” neighborhoods. They documented and publicized these examples and took action.
First, they reminded their congregations that discrimination was contrary to their fundamental religious beliefs, and urged them to stand up against injustice. They convinced schools to allow them to provide a curriculum to teachers so they could address prejudice in the classroom. They circulated petitions to urge a stop to housing discrimination, and they proposed an Open Housing Ordinance which was eventually adopted.
Dad brought together a group of realtors and appealed to them as business people and Christians to stop these discriminatory practices and to welcome all newcomers to our community. One realtor was brave enough to stand with him and ask others to join them; he was subsequently fired for his stance.
He met an African American couple who had purchased a home being built in well-to-do Southfield. The man was an assistant school principal and a former Marine who had served our country honorably. His wife was also well educated. They were harassed and warned not to move to the neighborhood. The men building their home walked off the job when they learned it would be owned by blacks, and the builder asked them, in front of my dad, how much it would take to buy them out and get them to stay away. The husband replied, “We’ll take one million dollars: $50,000 for what we paid and the rest for the insult to our family and our citizenship.” My dad, the clergy association, and other supporters, including the local police chief, stood with them. By the way, Southfield has come a long way. The city’s current Mayor is an African American woman!
As a result of his involvement in these highly charged issues, dad made many friends, and also some enemies.
One year, shortly before Easter, the phone began ringing at exactly 5:00 a.m. for several days in a row, but there was only silence on the other end when answered. Then, he began finding notes in our mailbox which read: “You better watch out for yourself and your family. You’re a troublemaker and we know where your children walk to school.”
On the advice of his police chief friend, he decided to get us all out of town for awhile. So on that early morning, we got in the car and I went on my first trip to Washington, DC.
In 1968, after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, my dad attended a Lutheran Convention in Atlanta, where he met Martin Luther King, Sr. at the Baptist church where King was the pastor. Rev. King asked my dad where he was from, and then asked if he could preach at my dad’s church.
Dad says “Daddy King” was powerful, breathtaking, inspiring, and humbling. Only five months earlier his son was slain, yet, he was preaching a message of reconciliation and hope to a white congregation in the Detroit suburbs. After that, my dad kept up a relationship with him and his sisters, and with their Baptist Church in Detroit.
In my campaign for Congress I’ve talked a lot about problem solving, and my ability to bring people together to accomplish something for the common good. Dad says it’s in my DNA.
I’m really lucky to have such a remarkable dad, and an equally remarkable mom. Thanks to you both for letting me tell this story.