Fifty years ago today, the Fair Housing Act — a long-filibustered civil rights bill — was swiftly signed into law following some historic events that framed racial integration as urgent and necessary. These were the publication of the Kerner Report, the findings of the Johnson-appointed National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, that cautioned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” and the even more recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Less than four years before the landmark legislation, California had voted to nullify its own Rumford Fair Housing Act with Proposition 14, a ballot proposition that guaranteed property rights over civil rights in the California Constitution. Stewart Alsop wrote of Proposition 14 in this magazine shortly before it passed, saying, “It would place the whole subject of fair housing forever out of bounds for the state legislature.” Proposition 14 faced opposition from “Labor, the churches, farsighted Republican businessmen, the Hollywood community, and the whole Democratic leadership,” but, as Alsop noted, the campaign against Prop 14 had everyone on their side but the voters. The proposition passed with over 65 percent of the vote, only to be struck down by the California Supreme Court in 1966.
The Rumford Fair Housing Bill was written by William Byron Rumford, the first African-American to hold state public office in Northern California. Rumford had led the passage of the Fair Employment Practices Act of 1959, and, as chairman of the Public Health Committee, he spearheaded regulation of air pollution and DDT. His fair housing bill was predicated, as Alsop put it in 1964, “on the thesis that a Negro’s money is as good as a white’s in buying real estate.” The bill was unpopular for white homeowners and real estate brokers for “pocketbook issues,” and California Governor Pat Brown even remarked, “the guy who votes for the Proposition as a pocketbook issue may vote for Johnson to salve his conscience.”
For Alsop, however, the fair housing issue was national in scope: “Either the Negro will be admitted to full citizenship, with the right to buy whatever he has the money to pay for, or there is much worse trouble to come.” Sure enough, the year after Prop 14 passed, the Watts riots in Los Angeles brought urgent attention to the racially sequestered neighborhoods of the city.
President Johnson’s Fair Housing Act prohibited the “refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin” at the individual level, but modern critics claim that, after 50 years, it has done far too little to “affirmatively” promote integration, as promised. In The New York Times, Walter Mondale, a co-author of the ’68 Fair Housing Act, decried the Ben Carson-led Department of Housing and Urban Development’s decision to delay the Obama-era initiative that required communities to analyze and fix racial segregation or face funding consequences. Mondale holds that the Fair Housing Act ought to (finally) make good on its intentions of widespread change: “The law was informed by the history of segregation, in which individual discrimination was a manifestation of a wider societal rift.”
Despite continuing residential segregation that expresses itself in educational disparities, a life expectancy gap, and income inequality, the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights bill can serve as a reminder that integration policy, however incremental, is far from impossible.