National issues

Part 1: 40 years after passage of the Fair Housing Act, still waiting for integrated communities

President Johnson signs the Fair Housing Act
President Johnson signs the Fair Housing Act

It is interesting and a little discouraging that on the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, one of the principal goals of the Act, promoting the integration of neighborhoods remains unfulfilled and highly controversial.

Today I will explore the debate and political process that went into the passage of the Fair Housing Act.  Tomorrow, I’ll explore the political considerations that restrained the implementation on the Act and crippled our commitment as a nation to achieving the ultimate goal of residential integration.

Calls for fair housing began early in the twentieth century, but the effort to enact fair housing legislation began in earnest in the 1950’s. Early on, efforts concentrated on first integrating government housing.

Congressman Vito Marcantonio
Congressman Vito Marcantonio

During the debate on a housing bill in June 1949 the open housing issue came to a head in an amendment by New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio.  The debate was on an amendment to prohibit the use of federal funds for any housing project that permitted segregation or other form of discrimination. Members supporting the housing bill told Marcantonio he needed to pull back on his call for housing integration so the housing bill could pass.  Marcantonio responded…

Mr. Chairman, I have a pretty good idea of the arguments that have been circulated against my amendment….. the artificial excuse that was offered is that this kind of amendment will sink the [housing] bill. Personally I do not believe that. …

Further, to those who want to use the opportunistic argument, let me tell them that you have no right to use housing against civil rights. housing and civil rights are an integral part of each other.  Housing is advanced in the interest of the general welfare and in the interest of strengthening democracy. When you separate civil rights from housing you weaken that general welfare.  …

Stand up now and we can get housing in accordance with the best traditions of American democracy. This depends on your will to fight for it. The responsibility rests on the majority. The responsibility rests on every single Member. Do we want housing with Jim Crow? I say “No.” I say that the issue cannot be evaded. It exists in the very marrow of the bone of this bill. I say the American people want housing with the full guaranty of equality.

Marcantonio’s amendment was defeated.

It was not until thirteen years later in November 1962, when President Kennedy signed an executive order entitled “Equal Opportunity in Housing” that discrimination was prohibited in housing owned, operated or assisted by the federal government.

Opponents of housing integration and public housing used these fair housing requirements to attack both.  The ad below ran in the Dallas Morning News in 1962.

Dallas Morning News ad from 1962
Dallas Morning News ad from 1962

While Kennedy’s Executive Order was the first official policy prohibiting residential segregation, it was basically ignored, in Texas and most southern states.  It was not until a series of desegregation lawsuits in the 1970’s that Texas housing authorities were brought into technical compliance with the anti-discrimination aspects of the law.  Integration of government housing has often proven illusive however.  The enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in public housing produced an exodus of whites so that to this day most public housing remains racially segregated.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the issue of civil rights in housing became the major unfinished piece of civil rights legislation.  Fair Housing and housing integration proved to be the most difficult civil rights legislation to pass.

The final process began in 1966 with legislation co‐sponsored by Senators Walter Mondale (D-MI) and Edward Brooke (R-MA).  Brooke was a liberal, African-American Republican.  Progress on the legislation was blocked for years by a combination of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans.

By 1968 the political environment was racially charged.  A series of race riots shook major US cities.  The Kerner Commission, empaneled by President Johnson to investigate the cause of the riots, recommended:

  • eliminating barriers to choice (anti-discrimination);
  • removing the frustration of powerlessness (empowerment); and
  • increasing contact across racial lines to destroy stereotypes and hostility (integration).

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The bill languished until Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4. President Johnson seized on the assassination, the urban rioting and the injustice of African-Americans disproportionally doing the fighting in the Viet Nam War to push through the legislation through Congress. After a weekend of urban rioting in major cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., the House passed the Fair Housing Act on April 10, as soldiers encircled the Capitol to protect it from rioters.  President Johnson signed the bill into law the next day.

In The Forty-Year “First Step”: The Fair Housing Act As An Incomplete Tool For Suburban Integration, Brian Patrick Larkin wrote…

Fair housing legislation was “the best way for this Congress to start on the true road to integration.”  Neither Senator Mondale or Senator Brooke saw the Fair Housing Act as the solution, or even the driving force to achieve integration. The Act was intended to be only a first step. Although its passage was an amazing accomplishment, Senator Mondale viewed the Act as being “only a foot in the door.” Similarly, Senator Brooke observed that even though the legislation was “a giant step in the right direction,” it was not a “cure [for] all the wrongs and ills in this country.” This view also aligned with the Kerner Commission’s recommendation that the removal of discrimination was to be the first objective, followed by strategies of empowerment and the facilitation of integration.

Critical decisions about implementation would occur in the months following passage of the Fair Housing Act.  These decisions would determine the extent to which the law would go beyond simply eliminating the legal barriers to housing choice to achieve the Kerner Commission’s most challenging goal of increasing contact across racial lines to destroy stereotypes and hostility through actually achieving housing integration.

As we will see tomorrow, political considerations would cause a retreat from the goal of integration.  As a consequence, forty years later the country is still beset with ghettos and struggling to overcome persistent racial housing segregation.

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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