On This Day: April 11

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:

  1. NYT Times: President Signs Civil Rights Bill
  2. Washington Post: The Fair Housing Act was languishing in Congress
  3. The New York Times: Discrimination Seeps Into Every Aspect of Home Buying for Black Americans

Forgotten Heroes: Texas Airman Dies in 1961 Diverting Falling Plane from Suburban Neighborhood

It’s hard to even fathom what thoughts go through a person’s head in the final moments of a crisis where they must choose between their own life or the lives of others.  

Such a crisis came to Captain Gary L. Herod on Wednesday, March 15, 1961.  A pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, Herod was barely in the air over Houston, Texas when his plane began to falter.  With the plane’s engine failing, he tried first to return to Ellington Field Airport, and radioed the control tower that he planned to eject himself from the plane.

Captain Gary L. Herod, Source: Texas Air National Guard

Somewhere in those seconds, though, he realized that doing so would leave the plane to crash into a suburban neighborhood filled with young families in a popular Houston suburb known as Meyerland.  

This excruciating choice included the fact that Herod had a wife and two children of his own.  As the tower asked for confirmation of his intent to eject, Herod’s last words were “not yet.”  

He went down with his plane into a vacant field on the north bank of Brays Bayou, the lone casualty of this tragedy.  Maybe he hoped that he might be able to safely land the plane, or maybe he fully knew the sacrifice he was making.

A couple of months later, a “Hero” tree was planted with a plaque commemorating his sacrifice at the site of the popular Meyerland Plaza Shopping Center, and in 1965, a local elementary school was named for him.  Nearly 57 years later, with the tree failing in health, his plaque and memorial were moved to the nearby elementary school bearing his name.  Herod was also posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from the United States Air Force.

In April of 1961, a month after the accident, a memorial fund dispersed $2,600 in donations to Herod’s wife.  She wrote a thank you letter, which was published in the Bellaire Texan, a local newspaper.  

Source: Texas Digital Newspaper Program: The Bellaire Texan

“I cannot help but consider, in wonder,” she wrote, “the circumstance which could make it possible for my husband to gain for himself in a few short tragic minutes, more friends than many men gain in a lifetime.”

She went on to say that she planned to dedicate these funds to her childrens’ education. “I feel this is fitting, for I am conscious of the fact that these funds represent to a large degree the gratitude of parents for the well being of their own children and concern for our children who must face life without their father.”

She signed the letter, “Mrs. Gary L. Herod.” 

To learn more about Gary L. Herod, visit these resources: