On April 11, 1968, the United States took a significant step towards advancing civil rights and equality with the signing of the Civil Rights Act or Fair Housing Act. Intended to build on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin in employment and voting, the Fair Housing Act addressed housing discrimination by specifically prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. The act also established penalties for those who violated its provisions, including fines and imprisonment. Additionally, the act established the Fair Housing Office within the Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate complaints of discrimination and enforce the law (1).
The passage of the Civil Rights Act was a major victory for civil rights advocates, but it faced serious opposition. The act itself was considered by Congress several times from 1966-1968 but failed to gain a majority vote. However, on April 4, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, TN. His death led to riots and protests across the nation as a generation of progressive Americans grieved his loss. In the wake of this shock, President Johnson seized the opportunity to push the bill through Congress yet again, this time receiving the majority votes needed in both houses (2).
In a letter written to Speaker of the House, John W. McCormack, President Johnson wrote, “Last night, America was shocked by a senseless act of violence. A man who devoted his life to the nonviolent achievement of rights that most Americans take for granted was killed by an assassin’s bullet.” President Johnson wanted “all good men to look deeply into their hearts . . . when the nation so urgently needs the healing balm of unity, a brutal wound on our conscience forces upon us all this question: What more can I do to achieve brotherhood and equality among all Americans?” (2).
A NYT article written 55 years after the signing of the Fair Housing Act reminds us that black applicants today are twice as likely to be denied a mortgage loan. Disparity in homeownership rate between black Americans and white Americans continues to rise (3). Certainly, the Fair Housing Act opened up new opportunities for minorities and helped to break down the barriers that had long kept them out of certain neighborhoods and communities, but has housing discrimination really ended?
For more information, visit these resources:
- NYT Times: President Signs Civil Rights Bill
- Washington Post: The Fair Housing Act was languishing in Congress
- The New York Times: Discrimination Seeps Into Every Aspect of Home Buying for Black Americans