The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex. Intended as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the bill was the subject of a contentious debate in the Senate, but was passed quickly by the House of Representatives in the days after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The Fair Housing Act stands as the final great legislative achievement of the civil rights era.
Struggle for Fair Housing
Despite Supreme Court decisions such as Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and Jones v. Mayer Co. (1968), which outlawed the exclusion of African Americans or other minorities from certain sections of cities, race-based housing patterns were still in force by the late 1960s. Those who challenged them often met with resistance, hostility and even violence.
Meanwhile, while a growing number of African-American and Hispanic members of the armed forces fought and died in the Vietnam War, on the home front their families had trouble renting or purchasing homes in certain residential areas because of their race or national origin.
In this climate, organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the G.I. Forum and the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing lobbied for new fair housing legislation to be passed.
The proposed civil rights legislation of 1968 expanded on and was intended as a follow-up to the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill’s original goal was to extend federal protection to civil rights workers, but it was eventually expanded to address racial discrimination in housing.
Title VIII of the proposed Civil Rights Act was known as the Fair Housing Act, a term often used as a shorthand description for the entire bill. It prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex.
In the U.S. Senate debate over the proposed legislation, Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts—the first African-American ever to be elected to the Senate by popular vote—spoke personally of his return from World War II and his inability to provide a home of his choice for his new family because of his race.
In early April 1968, the bill passed the Senate, albeit by an exceedingly slim margin, thanks to the support of the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen, which defeated a southern filibuster.
It then went to the House of Representatives, from which it was expected to emerge significantly weakened; the House had grown increasingly conservative as a result of urban unrest and the increasing strength and militancy of the Black Power movement.
On April 4—the day of the Senate vote—the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to aid striking sanitation workers. Amid a wave of emotion—including riots, burning and looting in more than 100 cities around the country—President Lyndon B. Johnson increased pressure on Congress to pass the new civil rights legislation.
Since the summer of 1966, when King had participated in marches in Chicago calling for open housing in that city, he had been associated with the fight for fair housing. Johnson argued that the bill would be a fitting testament to the man and his legacy, and he wanted it passed prior to King’s funeral in Atlanta.
After a strictly limited debate, the House passed the Fair Housing Act on April 10, and President Johnson signed it into law the following day.
Impact of the Fair Housing Act
Despite the historic nature of the Fair Housing Act, and its stature as the last major act of legislation of the civil rights movement, in practice housing remained segregated in many areas of the United States in the years that followed.
From 1950 to 1980, the total black population in America’s urban centers increased from 6.1 million to 15.3 million. During this same time period, white Americans steadily moved out of the cities into the suburbs, taking many of the employment opportunities blacks needed into communities where they were not welcome to live.
This trend led to the growth in urban America of ghettoes, or inner city communities with high minority populations that were plagued by unemployment, crime and other social ills.
In 1988, Congress passed the Fair Housing Amendments Act, which expanded the law to prohibit discrimination in housing based on disability or on family status (pregnant women or the presence of children under 18).
These amendments brought the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act even more squarely under the control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which sends complaints regarding housing discrimination to be investigated by its Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO).