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Journal of Policy History 13.2 (2001) 181-214

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Images of Race, Class, and Markets: Rethinking the Origin of U.S. Fair Housing Policy

Mara S. Sidney


As the first national law to address racial discrimination in housing, the 1968 Fair Housing Act was truly a landmark piece of legislation. It prohibited homeowners, real-estate agents, lenders, and other housing professionals from engaging in a range of practices they had commonly used to keep neighborhoods racially segregated, such as refusing to sell or rent to a person because of his or her race, lying about the availability of a dwelling, or blockbusting (inducing white owners to sell by telling them that blacks were moving into the neighborhood). 1 The last of the 1960s-era civil rights laws, the Fair Housing Act tackled the arena long felt to be the most sensitive to whites. Intense controversy, demonstrations, and violence over fair housing issues had occurred in many cities and states since at least the 1940s. 2 Although John F. Kennedy promised during his presidential campaign to end housing discrimination "with the stroke of a pen," once elected, he waited two years to sign a limited executive order. 3 In 1966, a fair housing bill supported by President Johnson failed in Congress. Unlike other civil rights bills, the issue of housing evoked opposition not just from the South but also from the North. Opponents claimed that it challenged basic American values such as "a man's home is his castle"; to supporters, the symbolism of homeownership as "the American Dream" only underscored the importance of ensuring that housing was available to all Americans, regardless of race.

How Congress finally came to pass a fair housing law in 1968 is a fittingly dramatic story, with sweeping events, tense floor votes, and backroom negotiations. The House of Representatives voted to [End Page 181] pass the bill that became the Fair Housing Act on April 10, six days after Martin Luther King's assassination, and in the midst of unrest in the capital city. The murder prompted blacks in Washington and many other cities to riot; during House debate, National Guard troops were assembled in the Capitol basement, preparing to go out into the streets. 4 The Senate had passed the same bill a month earlier, after the fourth attempt to cut off a filibuster succeeded, garnering not one vote more than the required two-thirds--"gasps of surprise and waves of applause broke out in the galleries" at the close of the roll-call vote. 5 Just a few days earlier, the "Kerner Commission Report" on the causes of urban riots had been issued, describing the emergence in the United States of two separate societies, "one black, one white--separate and unequal"; its recommendations included adoption of national fair-housing legislation.

When Senate liberals had planned their civil rights strategy in 1967, at the start of the 90th Congressional session, they divided the package of proposed legislation into individual bills, and gave junior Senator Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) the open-housing measure, convinced that it hadn't a chance. 6 But an unexpected opportunity to introduce the bill arose, and Mondale, Senator Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), and five other senators moved the bill along, holding daily strategy meetings and quietly working to convince moderate Republicans to support it. The first vote to invoke cloture failed, but it attracted more than a Senate majority (55-37) and showed Republicans to be evenly split on the issue, rather than uniformly opposed to it; this prompted fair-housing supporters to begin to negotiate with Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), who eventually agreed to a compromise version, as he had in previous civil rights legislative efforts. Even then, supporters were fighting for every last vote, and were unsure that the critical number of Republicans would switch sides right up to the moment cloture passed. Accounts portray Dirksen as requiring somewhat of a Faustian bargain; whereas supporters expected his compromise fair-housing bill to reduce the portion of dwellings...


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