The Fair Housing Act of 1968

The Rev. Martin Luther Jr. paved the way for the law's passage

The Rev. Martin Luther King speaks at a rally at the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, Illinois, 1960s.
The Rev. Martin Luther King unsuccessfully fought for housing equality in Chicago.

Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson to prevent discrimination against people from minority groups as they try to rent or buy homes, apply for mortgages, or obtain housing assistance. The legislation makes it illegal to refuse to rent or sell housing to individuals on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability. It also prohibits charging tenants from protected groups more for housing than others or denying them mortgage loans. 

It took a few years to get the Fair Housing Act passed. The legislation appeared before Congress in 1966 and 1967, but it failed to get enough votes to be enacted. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the fight to legalize the act, also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, an update to the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Fast Facts: Fair Housing Act of 1968

  • The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, or family status. President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation on April 11, 1968.
  • The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to deny someone from a protected group a mortgage loan, to charge them more for housing than others, or to change the rental or loan application standards to obtain housing. It prohibits the direct or indirect refusal to make housing available to such individuals.
  • The April 4, 1968, assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for fair housing in Chicago, prompted Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act after it had previously failed to enact it.
  • Housing discrimination declined after the act’s passage, but the problem has not gone away. Many residential neighborhoods in the Midwest and the South remain racially segregated, and blacks continue to be turned down for mortgage loans at twice the rate of whites.

Fair Housing in the Civil Rights Era 

On January 7, 1966, Martin Luther King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, launched their Chicago Campaign, or the Chicago Freedom Movement. The previous summer, a group of Chicago civil rights activists asked King to lead a rally in their city protesting racial discrimination in housing, employment, and education. Unlike Southern cities, Chicago did not have a set of Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation, known as de jure segregation. Instead, the city had a system of de facto segregation, which means it occurred “by fact” or by custom based on social divides, rather than by law. Both forms of discrimination deprive people from marginalized groups of equality. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to focus on Chicago’s fair housing problem when an activist named Albert Raby, part of Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), asked the SCLC to join them in an anti-housing discrimination campaign. King felt that the public readily acknowledged the overt racism in the South. The covert racism in the North, however, hadn’t garnered as much attention. The 1965 riots that took place in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood had revealed that African Americans in Northern cities faced exploitation and discrimination, and their unique struggles deserved to be highlighted.

King believed that substandard housing in communities of color prevented African Americans from making progress in society. When he started the Chicago Campaign, he explained that “the moral force of SCLC’s nonviolent movement philosophy was needed to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.” To make his point and see the movement unfold firsthand, he moved into a Chicago slum.

Chicago Proves More Hostile Than the South

Fighting fair housing in Chicago proved to be a challenge for King. On August 5, 1966, as he and other demonstrators marched for fair housing on the city’s West Side, a white mob pelted them with bricks and rocks, one of which hit the civil rights leader. He described the hatred he’d experienced in Chicago as more fierce than the hostility he’d faced in the South. King continued living in the city, listening to the whites who opposed fair housing. They wondered how their neighborhoods would change if blacks moved in, and some expressed concerns about crime.

“Many whites who oppose open housing would deny that they are racists,” King said. “They turn to sociological arguments … [without realizing] that criminal responses are environmental, not racial.” In other words, blacks do not have an inherent capacity for crime. They had been relegated to neglected neighborhoods where crime was prevalent.

By August 1966, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley agreed to build public housing. King cautiously declared a victory, but it turned out to be premature. The city did not fulfill this promise. De jure segregation in residential neighborhoods continued and no additional housing was built at that time.

The Impact of Vietnam

The Vietnam War also emerged as a focal point in the fight for fair housing. Black and Latino men made up a disproportionate number of casualties during the conflict. Yet, the families of these slain soldiers could not rent or buy homes in some neighborhoods. These men may have given their lives for their country, but their relatives weren’t afforded full rights as citizens because of their skin color or national origin.

A variety of different groups, including the NAACP, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, the GI Forum, and the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing worked to get the Senate to back the Fair Housing Act. In particular, U.S. Sen. Brooke (R-Mass.), an African American, had firsthand experience of what it was like to participate in a war and be denied housing upon his return to the U.S. He was a World War II veteran who faced housing discrimination after serving his country.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle supported the Fair Housing Act, but the legislation drew concern from Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.). Dirksen thought the legislation should focus more on the actions of institutions than on individuals. Once the law was amended to this effect, he agreed to support it.

MLK's Assassination and Approval of the Fair Housing Act

On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Riots broke out across the country in the wake of his murder, and President Lyndon Johnson wanted to pass the Fair Housing Act in the slain civil rights leader’s honor. After years of the legislation lying dormant, Congress passed the act. Then, President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on April 11, 1968. Johnson’s successor in the White House, Richard Nixon, appointed the officials responsible for overseeing the Fair Housing Act. He named then Michigan Gov. George Romney Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Samuel Simmons the Assistant Secretary for Equal Housing Opportunity. By the next year, HUD had formalized a process the public could use to file housing discrimination complaints, and April became known as "Fair Housing Month.”

Legacy of the Fair Housing Act

The passage of the Fair Housing Act did not end housing discrimination. In fact, Chicago remains one of the nation’s most segregated cities, meaning more than 50 years after Martin Luther King’s death, de jure segregation remains a serious problem there. This kind of discrimination appears to be most prevalent in the South and the Midwest, according to a USA Today report. Moreover, a 2019 study by the real estate data company Clever found that, even accounting for income, African Americans were twice as likely to be denied mortgage loans than whites. The study also found that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to have high-cost mortgage loans, putting them at risk of foreclosure. These trends don’t mean that the Fair Housing Act hasn’t helped to curb housing discrimination, but they do reveal just how widespread this problem is.

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