On this date 46 years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This important piece of legislation is better known as the Fair Housing Act. Its core purpose is to prohibit discrimination in housing — whether for lease or for sale. The law makes it a federal crime to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone … by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Sadly, even with the landmark civil rights legislation already passed, housing discrimination was rampant in the United States, particularly in urban areas. This blatant discrimination — including redlining, social steering, and other heinous practices — was not restricted to the South. Even though there was 100-year-old legislation (the Civil Rights Act of 1866) that implied the rights of property, the lack of a strong enforcement mechanism allowed many nasty practices to grow over time.
As the civil rights movement grew and the first major laws were passed — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act — activists began focusing on housing. The Chicago Open Housing Movement was a trailblazing effort and federal legislation was drafted based on the successful aspects of that movement. Unfortunately, Congress had lost some momentum and many members felt that civil rights had been sufficiently covered — a view afforded to those with white privilege. The draft law languished.
Then tragedy struck. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots broke out and racial tensions rose again across the nation. Never one to miss an opportunity to take bold action, LBJ decided the time was right to re-energize the Fair Housing Act. He wrote personal letters to Congressional leaders demanding immediate action. As was often the case, he was sufficiently persuasive. One week after King’s death, he signed the Act into law.
LBJ has a complicated legacy, but he was a powerful, convincing leader whose passion for civil rights and equality cannot be questioned. No president before or since has done more to create legal protections for oppressed and targeted people. The Fair Housing Act created strict guidelines and penalties. It also established an enforcement agency, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The NAACP and ACLU have successfully pressed cases that have expanded the protections to include urban renewal planning. People with disabilities and families with children were added to the protection umbrella as subsequent legislation was passed over the years.
While this law was critical and made a real difference, housing discrimination is still a significant problem. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates approximately two million cases of discrimination every single year. Imagine what the problem would be like without a law in place! As with most federal protections, Fair Housing still does not carry protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Several states and localities have created protections, but without cohesive federal standards this piecemeal approach is not enough.
Call to Action: We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Given the current Supreme Court’s fondness for gutting rights laws and the blatant violations that still exist, we must be vigilant to ensure that the enforcement, protection, and punishment mechanisms that are in place remain strong. We must also work to include all people in this protection, demanding strong federal protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.