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Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law

In the early 1900s, African Americans abandoned the South for better lives in the North. Discriminatory landlords and government policies crowded them into ghettos, transforming the demographics of America’s largest cities.

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 2:08 PM EDT

It didn't last.

Cities and towns began adopting zoning codes that designated neighborhoods as all-white and all-black. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down those laws as unconstitutional, real estate agents wrote "codes of ethics" that included bans on selling homes to African Americans outside of black areas. In some cities, white residents responded to the arrival of black families with riots, home bombings, and cross burnings. They formed associations dedicated to blocking even a single black family from moving in.

White communities also embraced racial covenants—legal language in deeds that barred any subsequent purchaser from selling to African Americans.

Still, African Americans kept moving north. By 1930, the black population in Northern cities had grown by 40 percent as another 1 million left the South.

Around this time the federal government began promoting the racial division of Northern cities, primarily through New Deal loan programs.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation, created in 1933, introduced the practice of redlining, marking in red ink swaths of cities in which it would not lend. It rated white neighborhoods as the least risky and black neighborhoods as the most. It would not lend to a black person seeking to buy in a white neighborhood, or vice versa.

When the Federal Housing Administration opened its doors a year later, it adopted the same practices. As a result, 98 percent of the loans the FHA insured between 1934 and 1962 went to white borrowers. The policies encouraged white flight as even neighborhoods with small numbers of African Americans were rated as "hazardous." White residents who didn't mind black neighbors found their home values decreasing as the government refused to insure mortgages for new buyers.

A 1938 manual for the FHA encouraged officials to avoid mixing "inharmonious racial or nationality groups" and "the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended."

With the end of World War II, a grateful nation made available vast amounts of credit to returning soldiers, who could borrow money through the GI Bill to buy their dream homes in the suburbs.

But banks often refused to approve loans for black soldiers attempting to use the GI Bill to buy homes. The Veterans Administration and the FHA officially supported racial covenants banning African Americans in new suburban developments until 1950, refusing to underwrite loans that would bring "incompatible" racial groups into newly created white areas.

Federal housing and development programs worked alongside state and local governments to bulldoze black and integrated neighborhoods for redevelopment and relocate African Americans to designated city corridors.

In their place, the government built public housing towers, home to thousands and thousands of people, nearly all of whom were black.

"As the new century wore on, areas of acceptable black residence became more and more narrowly circumscribed. The era of the ghetto had begun," Massey and Denton wrote in their book "American Apartheid."

As the boundaries of black neighborhoods expanded, white residents began to abandon cities altogether. Once again, federal policies accelerated segregation.

The government built highways and mass transit systems that made it possible for millions of white Americans to work in the inner city yet live in the suburbs.

It took just 60 years—not even a lifetime—to divide communities in nearly every metropolitan area along racial lines. Northern cities had become the most segregated in the country, analysis of census data shows.

LBJ Tries to Change Minds in the '60s

When the 1960s brought protests in the South against Jim Crow laws, civil rights leaders found an unlikely ally in the White House.

President Lyndon B. Johnson brushed aside the Southern leaders of his own party, pushing through landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination in voting, employment, public accommodations and public education.

One issue remained beyond the reach of Johnson's legendary persuasive skills: housing.

The president had contemplated introducing fair housing legislation as early as 1964, but his staff advised against it.

Johnson persisted, arguing that residential segregation was the wellspring of all other racial inequities. Just as Congress was passing some of the most far-reaching civil rights laws since Reconstruction, Northern ghettos erupted. In the three years before King's assassination, African Americans took to the streets in more than 100 cities. The rioting prompted Johnson to press harder for legislation to undo the nation's segregated housing patterns.

In 1966, he turned for help to Mondale, a 38-year-old senator from Minnesota not long into his first term. A former majority leader, Johnson held personal relationships with the Senate's most powerful figures. But housing was so toxic an issue, the president couldn't find anyone else to lead the fight.

"I was young and I thought I could do anything," said Mondale, now grayer but still an optimist. "I was a bit flattered that I'd get a bill that was so important."

With the help of co-sponsors Mondale and Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, then the only African American in the Senate, Johnson proposed a bill to ban discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. It went nowhere.

Mondale understood why his liberal colleagues were discomfited by the measure. If it came to the floor, pressure from constituents would force them to vote against it, making them look like hypocrites.

"A lot of civil rights was about making the South behave and taking the teeth from George Wallace," Mondale said, referring to the famously racist governor of Alabama who ran for president in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. "This came right to the neighborhoods across the country. This was civil rights getting personal."

Johnson, who had considered the 1966 housing bill his most devastating political defeat, did not back down. In the summer of 1967, Mondale called a black veteran to testify. Decorated for his service in Vietnam, Carlos Campbell had been appointed to a job in the Pentagon. Standing rigid in a crisp white uniform, he told the Senate housing and urban affairs subcommittee how he and his wife were unable to rent an apartment in the white neighborhoods near his new post in Arlington, Va., even with the help of the Defense Department's housing office.

"Up until the spring of 1965 I was largely convinced that our racial problems were rapidly diminishing and that education, professional credibility, and financial integrity were the necessary vehicles for obtaining full rights as a citizen," Campbell said. Once off the military base, he said, he'd been forced to "re-examine my philosophy." The man who had, in his own words, been entrusted with "safeguarding the nation's most delicate secrets" told senators that he had been turned away from more than 36 apartments because of his race.

"I remember old Dick Russell, that old segregationist, said, 'I am for segregation, but how do we tell black Americans who have fought and died for us that they have to go back in the box?'" Mondale said. "That was always the Achilles' heel, and this helped bring that to the front."

Minds were slowly changing. But the bill died again.

Two developments revived it.

Johnson had asked a blue-ribbon panel to study the riots and make recommendations on how to prevent such violence in the future.

The Kerner Commission's searing conclusion—that the United States was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal"—is enshrined in the history books.

What is less well-remembered was the basis for that finding. The commission blamed housing segregation for the riots. "What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto," the panel wrote. "White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." The report called for a federal fair housing law.

Days later, on April 4, 1968, an assassin killed King on the balcony of a Memphis motel. Black communities again exploded in riots.

Washington, D.C., which had recently become majority black, was among the hardest hit. Mondale recalled flying over the nation's capital in a helicopter thinking, "By God, it looks like Vietnam."

"You could see the fires from the Capitol and the whole place seemed to be in flames," he said. "The city was locked down, the Capitol was under guard, and nobody knew what was going to happen. The nation came close to pulling apart."

Many lawmakers shared Mondale's fear that the horrific conditions of the nation's ghettos had set the stage for a cycle of deepening violence and confrontation.

Johnson used the shock following King's assassination to his advantage, urging Congress to pass the long-delayed housing bill as a tribute to the slain leader.

The housing legislation, Mondale said, had been the most filibustered bill in history. But when lawmakers took up the bill this time, "They didn't dare," Mondale recalled. "They didn't dare hold it up."

Just six days after King died, Congress passed Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act. As the votes in the House were tallied—250-171—armed National Guardsmen ringed the Capitol to protect Congress from the rioters in burning slums just a few blocks away.

Johnson signed the bill into law April 11. "We have passed many civil rights pieces of legislation," he said. "But none is more important than this."

The law banned racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, block busting (in which real estate agents move a black family into a white neighborhood and use it to frighten white homeowners into selling, turning the neighborhood from white to black), racial steering (in which real estate agents steer home seekers to racially distinct neighborhoods), and intimidation and coercion.

Then it went a step further. The law required federal officials to do everything possible to "affirmatively further" fair housing. This odd turn of phrase, which was not further defined, distinguished the housing law from almost all other civil rights legislation. It didn't just ban discrimination. It charged the government to act to bring about "integrated and balanced living patterns," according to Mondale's statements at the time.

To accomplish this, the law directed HUD to create a civil rights office that would enforce the new law. According to Brooke, the intent was to enable the government to "withhold funds or defer action" to dismantle segregation.

By including this provision, lawmakers were acknowledging that previous statutes and presidential orders addressing housing discrimination had been ignored. President Kennedy had signed an executive order in 1962 banning discrimination in federally subsidized housing. Nothing changed. The 1964 civil rights law banned racial discrimination by any agency that received federal money. It, too, made no difference.

Mondale and the bill's floor managers made concessions to secure the law's passage that weakened HUD's enforcement powers.

One key compromise limited HUD's ability to punish discriminatory landlords and real estate agents. The original draft envisioned a mounting schedule of fines. The final version gave HUD only the authority to seek voluntary settlements. If landlords refused, the agency could do nothing but inform those complaining of discrimination to file private lawsuits. Moreover, by capping damages for successful claims at $1,000, the act made such lawsuits thoroughly impractical.

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