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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

Mondale viewed the law as a first step, envisaging a succession of bills that would address weaknesses in the Fair Housing Act.

From the start, HUD was whipsawed by conflicting mandates. Cobbled together from agencies that just a few years earlier had openly pushed segregation, HUD was supposed to transform itself into a force for civil rights. Not surprisingly, the agency's predominant focus remained on creating housing as fast as possible.

"For 40 years we tried to get interest in enforcement," Mondale said. "There have been many times that I have been disappointed with federal enforcement of this law."

Nixon's 'Serious Romney Problem'

Johnson never got an opportunity to administer the law. Battered by protests over the Vietnam War, he declined to run for re-election. Hubert Humphrey, his vice president, lost a closely contested election to Richard Nixon, a Republican whose winning coalition was built around former Southern Democrats and white Northerners.

Nixon named an avowed opponent of housing segregation as his first secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

George Romney, who unsuccessfully ran against Nixon early in the presidential campaign, had championed housing integration as governor in his home state of Michigan.

The 1967 Detroit riots, which destroyed 2,000 buildings and took 43 lives, profoundly affected Romney. On the night National Guard and Army combat troops backed by tanks finally quelled the violence, Romney delivered a "Report to the People" that was broadcast statewide.

"Some already are saying the answer is brute force such as would be used on mad dogs," the governor said. "Others are questioning present social and economic programs because they claim Negroes don't appreciate what has already been done."

"Some white people and public officials will advocate the return to state's rights as a way to legalize segregation," he continued. "As citizens of Michigan, as Americans, we must unhesitatingly reject all these divisive courses."

Instead, Romney enacted a statewide fair housing law. He called for an end to local zoning that encouraged segregation and for the creation of low-cost housing throughout metropolitan Detroit and the state.

"Force alone will not eliminate riots," Romney wrote in letters responding to angry citizens. "We must eliminate the problems from which they stem."

Romney knew his ideas went against the grain of the Nixon administration, but his papers, housed at the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, show that he viewed open housing as a moral obligation regardless of political cost.

So Romney and his staff crafted a secret agenda to use HUD's powers under the 1968 act. Romney staff members debated how much to let the White House, and the public, know about their efforts.

In a memo to Romney dated Aug. 15, 1969, HUD Undersecretary Richard Van Dusen said that federal housing subsidies, along with urban renewal policies and suburban water and sewer grants, had increased segregation. Those same programs, or the threatened loss of them, could be used to integrate suburbs that counted on the money but also blocked the construction of affordable housing.

The memo anticipated opposition from Nixon, Congress, the Republican Party and mayors.

"Judgments must be made as to what steps may be taken quietly and without formal policy announcement," the memo said. "It seems probable that a frontal attack which publicly seeks to redress the ghetto problem would arouse major political opposition."

Soon after, Romney launched his Open Communities program. Separately, he ordered his staff to draft legislation that allowed the government to override local zoning that kept out federally subsidized housing.

"Romney recognized these places got a lot of stuff from the federal government," said Orfield, the University of Minnesota law professor. "And Romney said if the federal government is going to build you a new freeway and sewer systems—the government was footing about 80 percent of the cost—you are not going to build communities at the end of those freeway and sewer systems for only affluent white people."

Romney's campaign achieved some initial successes. HUD terminated grants to the Boston, Baltimore and Toledo metro areas after they rejected low-income housing slated for white neighborhoods, and won concessions.

The program could not be kept secret for long. On June 22, 1970, Nixon's most trusted domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, sent Romney a note.

"The White House is receiving the strongest sort of representations regarding the proposed 'open communities' policy," he wrote. "This proposal has not had the usual policy review...May I ask the present status...?"

Romney sent back a less-than-truthful reply. The department had not created a new policy, he wrote. It was merely reviewing "a range of alternatives."

A month later, the new HUD chief decided to test the program in territory he knew well—the 99 percent-white Detroit suburb of Warren. The once-sleepy town had undergone a population boom as whites fled Detroit in the '60s. Its residents were openly hostile to the idea of African Americans moving into their town. After local police failed to protect an interracial couple who'd moved there, then-Gov. Romney dispatched the state police.


Romney told Warren that HUD would withhold federal dollars if the city didn't agree to build affordable housing. Warren's mayor pleaded for leniency. Romney stood firm, saying: "Black people have just as much right to equal opportunities as we do."

Local officials in Warren complained in a letter to the White House about HUD's "integrationist misfits." The president responded immediately, denying the White House had a plan to tie HUD dollars to integration. He ordered Romney to release the money.

The confrontation over Warren marked a critical moment in the history of the Fair Housing Act. For the first time enforcement of the law collided with the political realities of a president thinking about re-election.

In the weeks after the Warren case, Southern congressmen angrily assailed Romney's plans to integrate the suburbs, particularly in metropolitan Atlanta.

Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, segregationist candidate for president in 1948, and other southern leaders took their complaints directly to Nixon. "We in the South are motivated by race," Georgia Congressman Fletcher Thompson told the president, according to notes from the session. The group warned that Nixon appeared "anti-South" because of Romney's actions. Some Southerners, they said, had derisively begun to refer to Nixon as "Mister Integrator."

Remarkably, Romney continued to press ahead with his Open Communities program. By the fall of 1970, Nixon had lost patience with his HUD secretary. A memo from Ehrlichman outlining options for Nixon's "Post-Southern strategy" for the 1972 campaign called HUD's effort to integrate the suburbs "a serious Romney problem which we will apparently have as long as he is here."

"This is no approved program," Ehrlichman wrote. "But he keeps loudly talking about it in spite of our efforts to shut him up."

Not long after, Nixon asked Romney to leave the Cabinet and become U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Romney turned down the job. In a Nov. 16, 1970, letter, he said he understood that the president believed they were "on a collision course because of a difference in ideology with respect to the racial aspects of HUD's programs." He asked for a meeting "to discuss my views personally with you."

At the end of the letter, Romney again made his argument for integration. "It is becoming increasingly clear that the lower, middle income and the poor, white, black and brown family, cannot continue to be isolated in the deteriorating core cities without broad scale revolution." He underlined the words.

Nixon froze Romney out, refusing to meet with the HUD secretary.

Weeks later, as the year came to a close, Romney, isolated and disgruntled, prepared notes for his long-delayed conversation with the president.

"President only wants yes-man," he wrote before outlining the same concerns—suburban integration and HUD funding—that had enraged Nixon. It appears the meeting never took place.

With Romney unwilling to take the ambassadorship, Nixon decided that he, not HUD, would set the nation's policy on fair housing. The president asked his staff to figure out just how narrowly he could construe the Fair Housing Act. He began referring publicly to Romney's approach as "forced integration."

Nixon's special counsel, Leonard Garment, tried to craft a strategy consistent with both the courts' interpretations of the law and Nixon's political needs. White House aides hoped that Garment would come up with a rationale for confining the fair housing law to overt acts of discrimination. But when Garment studied the court cases, he concluded this was not possible. Again and again, federal judges had interpreted the "further fair housing phrase" to mean that the federal government had an active role to play in desegregation.

Ehrlichman shopped for another opinion, turning to Tom Stoel, a lawyer who worked in the president's executive office. Stoel argued that the government could restrict enforcement of the law to "cases of individual discrimination" and need not get involved in zoning issues or press communities to build affordable housing. This would "avoid any hint of 'forced integration'" but, he warned, "may not fulfill the Government's obligation under the law."

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