My father was in the top five percent of IBM salesmen in the world. With his success in Virginia, my dad was offered a promotion. He would be working in the IBM Office Products Division’s headquarters in New York City at 590 Madison Avenue.
My father began searching for homes and found that real estate agents kept directing him to the same few neighborhoods in Bergen County that had significant black populations. This injustice angered both of my parents, and they sought legal help. They were referred to Lee Porter at the Fair Housing Council.
With the council involved, they began to see homes in predominantly white towns around Bergen County, near Franklin Lakes, but they would be told that the homes had already been sold or been pulled off the market. So Lee Porter and the Fair Housing Council decided to begin to send out white “test couples” to see if indeed the homes were sold or off the market. They weren’t.
My parents visited a home in Harrington Park on Norma Road. They loved it, but as usual, they were told the house had already been sold. The next day, when the test couple was sent by the council, they too expressed interest. And to their feigned delight, the house was indeed for sale! With Marty Friedman handling all the legal details, the white couple put a bid on the house that was identical to what my parent wanted to offer. The offer was accepted. The white couple went to the real estate agent’s office and drew up the paperwork, but they did so without a lawyer. They claimed that they had to meet with their lawyer and would take the contract with them to get a legal review, and then they’d come back on Monday morning with their lawyer to finalize the contract. Marty and the test couple now had the evidence that they needed to prove that the house wasn’t already sold and the agent was in violation of New Jersey law.
On Monday morning at the time of the appointment, as the real estate agent was waiting to close on the house, the white couple didn’t show. Instead, Marty Friedman showed up with my father.
My father said he knew there would be trouble when he saw a large Doberman pinscher curled up in the corner of the office. What cut through the tension—and the ominous presence of the dog—was a sign hanging in the office that claimed they supported equal opportunity in housing.
The real estate agent looked up, more than a little surprised to see my father. Marty, having been part of sting operations like this before, didn’t waste any time. He marched right up to that agent and walked him through the fact pattern. He informed the real estate agent that he was in violation of New Jersey state law and his real estate license was at risk. The Bookers, he explained, would be purchasing the home.
My father said that Marty didn’t get much further in his speech. At that point, the real estate agent stood up and punched Marty in the face, then grabbed his paperwork, trying to yank it away and destroy the evidence. The agent called the dog’s name, yelling at the dog to “Get’ em! Get ‘em!” My father turned toward the dog as it ran at Marty and managed to corral it. He held the dog back as Marty and the agent fought. Things slid off desks, a table and chairs were upended, and Marty was shoved against a window, breaking it. When things settled down, the real estate agent began pleading with my father, swearing that if we moved into Huntington Park, we would wreck the town.
My father never complained to me in telling this story. He even told it with humor: We moved into Harrington Park and became four raisins in a tub of sweet vanilla ice cream. My father and mother often talked of it to make a point about people—not the bigots or those who in the face of bigotry did nothing, but those in Harrington Park who embraced us when we moved in. My parents used the story as an example of the conspiracy of love: lawyers inspired by Bloody Sunday; volunteers, black and white, who gave up hours and hours to help families like mine; leaders like Lee Porter, whose steadfast and tireless direction of a small organization has impacted the lives of thousands alive today and those of generations yet unborn. They told me the story to show me that good people doing the right thing can make a tremendous difference.
And this point would often be the launching pad for their discussion of my place in the world. Privileges and opportunities say nothing of character and honor, they would tell me. Only actions do. We are ultimately responsible for our actions. We are defined by what we do. Actions, small and large, radiate out into eternity. What we do or fail to do—to one another, for one another or with one another— leaves a lasting imprint beyond what we can imagine.
Yes, we drink deeply from wells of liberty and opportunity that we did not dig. We owe a debt that we can’t pay back but must pay forward.
We are the result of a grand conspiracy of love.
The preceding excerpt was from Cory Booker’s book, United Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.
Cory Booker (GLS 2011) was raised in Harrington Park. After graduating from Stanford University and Yale Law School, he moved to Newark—where he still lives to this day—and started a nonprofit organization to provide legal services for low-income families and help tenants take on slumlords. He was elected to the Newark City City Council and, starting in 2006, Booker proudly served as Newark’s mayor for more than seven years. In 2013, Booker won a special election to represent New Jersey in the United States Senate. As New Jersey’s junior Senator, Cory Booker has brought an innovative and bipartisan approach to tackling some of the most difficult problems facing New Jersey and our country.