At the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, we have three black-and-white photographs from the civil rights era enlarged to two-feet-by-three-feet prints mounted on poster board. For the start of our annual fair housing rights workshop and to show at once why April is National Fair Housing Month and the gravity of its origins, we bring out these photographs.
One by one.
In the first photograph, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Whitney Young are huddled in the Oval Office in 1964 for a strategy session over the first civil rights bill. The meeting marks the beginning of President Johnson and Dr. King’s fruitful if sometimes bumpy relationship. Their collaborations would soon result in landmark legislation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By early April 1968—exactly fifty years ago—however, Johnson and King were keenly apprehensive for the prospects of a third civil rights bill that they had been working on together since 1966. After addressing discrimination in schools, the polling booth, and public accommodations, the two men had focused legislative efforts on eradicating racial segregation and housing discrimination.
Their hopes were with a fair housing bill that made it illegal to treat applicants for rental housing, tenants, home-buyers, and borrowers differently because of their race, religion, color, or national origin. However, the bill’s two-year journey had seemingly come to an unfulfilled end in the Capitol; as of April 4, 1968, it was stuck fast in a legislative committee chaired by a staunch segregationist who had no intention to ever report the bill out.
Our second photograph takes us deeper into the bill’s history. It shows Johnson and King in April 1966 in the Cabinet Room for the first top-level meeting over what should be in a law for fair housing (also known as “open housing” back then) and how to get it passed. They anticipated a long fight against segregationists and states’ rights advocates.
At that meeting (but not in our photograph) was Congress’s godfather of civil rights legislation, New York Congressman Emanuel Celler. Celler introduced a comprehensive fair housing bill (H.R.2516) in January 1967, and the protracted effort began. By March 1968, the bill’s supporters had seen it bottled up with a year of neglect in the House and then constant filibusters in the Senate.
But just when H.R. 2516 seemed dead in the water, it would get a breath of life from either the President himself or a hard-hitting civil rights report. For example, Johnson wrote at least two letters to Congress to get the bill moving and demanded in official remarks that the leaders stop “fiddling and piddling” with fair housing. And during another attempt to end a filibuster, President Johnson offered to send an Air Force jet to pick up three or four absent supporters of fair housing.
A jet ride did not grab the Senate’s attention the same way as did the Kerner Commission’s Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders with its grim picture of race and inequality in America. The March 1, 1968 report, which was a brainchild of Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma and commissioned at Harris’s urging by President Johnson, concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies—one white, one black—separate and unequal.” The Commission further concluded that racial segregation had to be addressed with a comprehensive federal fair housing law.
The report’s blistering indictment of white racism shocked many and was so hard-hitting that even President Johnson was taken aback. For several days Johnson refused to acknowledge it. Senator Harris, the last living member of the Kerner Commission, spoke at the Santa Monica Public Library this January and he lamented the President’s reaction and the Administration’s attempts to undermine the report.
Harris and the Commission, however, had had the foresight to set up a publishing deal with Bantam Books. The report hit the news media and the nation’s bookstores with the force of an Oklahoma tornado. Within three days, Bantam had sold 300,000 copies and the Kerner Report’s impact had spurred the Senate to end the filibuster. After a 71-20 vote on March 11, 1968, the bill finally escaped the Senate.
The bill returned to the House for concurrence with several Senate amendments. A hopeful consent request was rejected and then the bill was dealt another blow, a referral to the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee was chaired by Mississippi’s William Colmer, a staunch segregationist, and the only quick thing he did with the bill was to defer any consideration of it. The definitive law review article on H.R. 2516’s legislative history, by Jean Dubofsky, states that after the second continuance by Colmer delaying action, “fears had increased that the Senate’s civil rights bill might die in the Rules Committee.”
Upon relating this piece of civil rights history to our Santa Monica workshop participants, we unveil the third photograph, that of President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Acts of 1968 (“Fair Housing Act”) on April 11, 1968. He’s surrounded by some twenty men, including Harris, Celler, Senator Walter Mondale, the bill’s co-sponsor, and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Success at last! But April 11? How was it possible for a bill languishing in the Rules Committee on April 4 to suddenly escape that committee and its pro-segregation chairperson, and then get itself and its Senate amendments debated and passed by the House to reach the President’s desk within seven days?
The answer is in—or with who’s not in—the photograph from the signing ceremony. King is not in it. Nor would he be in another iconic shot of him shaking hands with and accepting a signing pen from President Johnson. King had been assassinated on April 4 and a shocked nation wanted to do something with its grief. King’s death and his April 9 memorial service broke the fair housing bill free. In homage to Dr. King’s great commitment and work, in response to the civil unrest, in remorse, and also to just finally do the right thing, the House quickly insisted on action from its own Rules Committee.
Resistant to the end, Chairman Colmer decried the idea of holding a vote during such a tumultuous week and even tried to force a Joint House-Senate committee to build in more delay. However, one of Colmer’s key allies switched his vote and the bill passed out of the committee on April 9. The House scheduled its debate on the vote on the Senate amendments for the very next day. On April 10, after the House decided to keep the debate to just one hour, the bill sprinted through a 250-172 vote and then straight to a relieved President.
“Long and stormy” is how President Johnson described the Fair Housing Act’s trip, and its passage came with thunder and lightning. We celebrate a 50th Anniversary and National Fair Housing Month in April in recognition of its April 11, 1968 passage into law. But we also honor this achievement in April because it is when, as Johnson put it in his April 5, 1968 letter to Congress, “A man who devoted his life to the nonviolent achievement of rights that most Americans take for granted was killed by an assassin’s bullet.”
Gary Rhoades is a Deputy City Attorney in the Consumer Protection Unit of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s office, which enforces the fair housing laws in Santa Monica and promotes public awareness of fair housing. For the city’s 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act activities this month, see the accompanying article on this page or visit www.smconsumer.org