The 1960s was a remarkable decade for civil rights legislation on Capitol Hill. After nearly a century of inactivity on the issue, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations and employment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which opened access to the ballot to millions. To improve on these achievements, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his 1966 State of the Union Address, called for additional legislation to extend protections for civil rights workers, end discrimination in jury selection, and “prohibit racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.”
Civil rights legislation was a fundamental component of the ambitious social, economic, and political reforms at the heart of the Johnson administration’s Great Society agenda. Although policymakers had overlooked housing in the past, Johnson and his congressional allies began prioritizing it midway through his term. Following his landslide victory in 1964, Johnson’s efforts were bolstered by large Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate in the 89th Congress (1965–1967). By 1966, however, successive summers of civil unrest, violence, and property destruction had escalated tensions in American cities and starkly divided Congress on civil rights—especially on legislative efforts to make America’s housing policy fair and equitable.
As lawmakers debated on Capitol Hill, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched a grassroots housing campaign to put pressure on Congress and desegregate northern cities. Starting in Chicago, Illinois, in 1966, King aimed to build a national movement for social and economic justice no longer confined to the Jim Crow South.
Over the next two years, Johnson’s new housing measure—known as the Fair Housing Act—traveled what he called a “long, tortuous and difficult road,” exposing the limits of his Great Society agenda and forcing Congress to consider more expansive civil rights protections.
In a written message to Congress on April 28, 1966, President Johnson called for fair housing legislation to break down the “complicated chain of discrimination and lost opportunities” in American society and help his administration continue the War on Poverty. He stressed that revitalizing urban areas and ensuring equal access to housing would “expand the liberty of all.” Johnson dismissed critics who claimed that a fair housing initiative was beyond the constitutional powers of Congress, citing a century of historical precedents beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which declared that all U.S. citizens had the right “to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property.”
The next week, on May 2, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler of New York introduced a civil rights bill that included Johnson’s proposals, and would have made it illegal for certain homeowners to refuse to sell to prospective buyers because of their race. Members from both parties immediately identified the open housing provision as a major impediment to the bill’s passage. Many House Democrats—even those from beyond the South who had dutifully supported recent civil rights legislation—were wary of the bill after constituents complained that the federal government was infringing on their property rights.
To broaden its appeal on the House Floor, Representative Charles McCurdy Mathias, Jr. of Maryland successfully amended the bill to effectively allow private home sellers to continue to discriminate, significantly weakening the open housing provision. Celler opposed Mathias’s amendment, arguing it would close off huge segments of America’s housing stock. Without the open housing provision, he said, the bill “would have been like a wine cellar without a corkscrew.”
In Chicago, King and the SCLC concurred with Celler’s assessment. In residential neighborhoods throughout the city, the SCLC planned nonviolent marches to mobilize support for open housing policies as a fundamental part of the civil rights struggle. “Just as Selma became a symbol for all of the South,” King said, referencing the campaign in Selma, Alabama, that prodded Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965, “so Chicago is a symbol for all of the North.” The SCLC planned marches through white neighborhoods and engaged in demonstrations outside real estate firms, the Chicago Housing Authority, and city hall. It also sent Black and white homebuyers to visit real estate agents and tracked whether they received equal treatment.
Back in Washington, Celler introduced a resolution on July 25 to force his civil rights bill into debate in the Committee of the Whole. The Judiciary Committee had approved the measure on June 30 but the Rules Committee, which set the terms for debate for every piece of legislation sent to the floor, had not considered the housing measure within the required 21-day window set by a new rule established in the 89th Congress. For decades, the Rules Committee and its series of southern chairmen had blocked most civil rights initiatives from reaching the floor. The House narrowly approved Celler’s resolution after a contentious debate in which Rules Chairman Howard Worth Smith of Virginia complained that Celler was trying to bypass his committee to appease the “so-called revolution of the Negro race.” With Celler’s success, the Baltimore Sun noted that the battle over the civil rights bill, waged throughout the summer in the “committee rooms and corridors” of Capitol Hill and “the streets of Northern cities,” had shifted to a new front: the floor of the House of Representatives.
During the ensuing 12-day debate, many in the House voiced their opposition to the fair housing policy. Illinois Congressman Daniel David Rostenkowski thought the bill would fail unless the housing provision was removed or weakened. Southern Democrats relished the opportunity to accuse their northern colleagues of hypocrisy for their opposition to civil rights legislation that this time might affect their districts.
As the debate intensified on Capitol Hill, King led several demonstrations in Chicago that were increasingly met with violence. On August 6, a Confederate-flag-waving crowd pelted King and several demonstrators trying to protect him in the head with rocks. King was surprised by the vitriol directed at his campaign, telling a reporter, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”
Three days later on August 9, following an unsuccessful last-minute effort to strip the fair housing provision, the House finally passed Celler’s civil rights bill after an extended debate in which the bill’s opponents accused King of fomenting the violence in Chicago and criticized the legislation as federal overreach.
Following a month of Senate inactivity on the legislation, King denounced Congress for failing to address “the dramatic urgency of the housing problem.” He promised to extend his fair housing campaign to 20 or more cities prior to the November midterm elections so that the next Congress “will not be able to avoid it, so that the very crisis will cause the nation to act.” Senate Republicans soon joined with southern Democrats to kill the bill.
The fair housing legislation played a prominent role in the 1966 elections. Roman Conrad Pucinski of Illinois, for instance, was one of many northern Democrats that questioned the framework of the housing measure. He had voted for the bill but also supported a failed amendment that would have exempted most individual homeowners from the law. After three comfortable victories in his northwest Chicago district, Pucinski faced a close race that November. “Go into Chicago today in any home, any bar, any barbershop and you will find people are not talking about Viet Nam,” Pucinski said in September. His constituents were more concerned with King’s demonstrations and “what’s going to happen to our neighborhoods.”
In November, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House, and many pointed to the housing legislation to explain Democratic defeats. Pucinski kept his seat by a margin of about 3,700 votes—the closest re-election victory of his career. Although Democrats kept the House majority, the prospects for a new civil rights bill in the upcoming Congress appeared small, with the New York Times noting that “the election seems to have erased the House margin in its favor.”
Early in the 90th Congress (1967–1969), Celler introduced another civil rights bill, H.R. 2516, that prohibited racial violence and intimidation directed against anyone engaging in constitutionally protected actions such as voting, jury service, employment, and accessing public accommodations and education. The bill, however, omitted any reference to equal housing. While Democrats mobilized behind the streamlined civil rights bill, tensions over jobs, housing, policing, and schools set the stage for a summer of discontent in America’s cities, culminating in the violent conflagrations in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, during several weeks in July. In both cases, officials called out the National Guard to quell the violence. Ultimately, 69 people died, hundreds were injured, and millions of dollars of property was destroyed.
On August 16, 1967, in Atlanta, Georgia, King delivered a searing indictment of violence, racism, and economic inequality in a speech before the SCLC’s annual convention. King described the Chicago open housing campaign as a key component of the freedom struggle. “Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvements,” King declared, adding that only nonviolent protests could force the nation to address the social and economic problems of its citizens.
That same day, the House debated Celler’s H.R. 2516. While southern Democrats led the opposition to the bill, Members from both northern and southern districts blamed King for the violence across America; several Members referenced his speech in Atlanta. Alton Asa Lennon of North Carolina accused King of more or less threatening Congress. “Is he saying to the men and women of the House of Representatives that they must respond to what he wants with respect to this legislation?” John Bayard Anderson of Illinois asked if the anti-intimidation provisions in the bill would apply to King if his stated aim of “mass civil disobedience” blocked children from attending school. Anderson wanted a guarantee that King could be prosecuted for attempting to “shamelessly exploit the schoolchildren of America” by calling for school boycotts.
After his narrow victory in 1966, Pucinski of Illinois was adamant that the bill’s provisions should apply to King as well. He denounced King’s commitment to civil disobedience as a “gimmick,” adding that there was no doubt King “is determined to destroy America from within and he will stop at no measure to achieve his goal.” Pucinski declared, “I want the record to show that when we speak of civil rights we speak of them not only for the minority, but civil rights also for the majority.” Despite the venom against King on the House Floor, the House ultimately passed the civil rights bill on August 16, 1967.
After nearly six months, the Senate finally took up H.R. 2516 in February 1968. The House had omitted any reference to fair housing in the bill, but Senator Edward William Brooke III of Massachusetts—the first African-American Senator directly elected by constituents and only the third Black Senator in U.S. history—joined his Democratic colleague, Walter Frederick Mondale of Minnesota, to draft an amendment prohibiting discrimination in the sale or rental of 91 percent of the nation’s housing. On the Senate Floor, Brooke outlined how segregated neighborhoods, typically far from employment opportunities, did extensive damage to African-American communities. Black families, he noted, often paid similar prices for homes in segregated neighborhoods as those in white neighborhoods but lacked the same level of public investments in the quality of housing, social services, and schools. Brooke added that he had experienced these inequalities firsthand and that they had a significant “psychological impact” on African Americans searching for homes. “In the hierarchy of American values there can be no higher standard than equal justice for each individual,” Brooke declared. “By that standard, who could question the right of every American to compete on equal terms for adequate housing for his family?”
As had happened in the House, opposition to the amendment was vocal in its tortured logic. Democrat Samuel James Ervin, Jr. of North Carolina, for instance, warned that the bill was designed to “bring about equality by robbing all Americans of their basic rights of private property.” Republican Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois had been steadfastly opposed to the bill since 1966, when he called the housing provision “absolutely unconstitutional.” But after lengthy debate, Dirksen unexpectedly declared that he was open to supporting the fair housing amendment with certain revisions. The final Senate bill included several concessions to Dirksen. It reduced the housing stock covered by the fair housing provision from 91 to 80 percent; it made it a federal crime to cross state lines to participate in a riot—a remnant of the 1966 bill; and prohibited Native American tribal governments from restricting the exercise of specific constitutional rights on their lands. The compromise bill passed the Senate on March 11, 1968.
With the Senate bill in hand, Celler asked for unanimous consent to concur with the Senate’s amendments and send the bill to the President’s desk on March 14. The House rejected his request, and instead sent H.R. 2516 to the Rules Committee to set the terms for additional consideration. Because the House’s 21-day rule had been eliminated by the 90th Congress, the new Rules Committee chairman, William Myers Colmer of Mississippi, was no longer required to take quick action on the bill. Colmer was an ardent segregationist, and he aimed to stop the bill’s progress on procedural grounds, arguing that the Senate had “completely rewritten everything that was in the bill as it passed the House.” He proposed sending the bill to a conference committee, where Members from both chambers could revise and, in theory, forge an agreement on the final version of the bill—but where he was confident that it would be delayed indefinitely.
On March 19, Colmer ignored pleas from the Johnson administration to take swift action on the bill and scheduled the committee vote for April 9. He then convened several Rules Committee hearings on the bill at the end of March and beginning of April. Colmer believed he had support in his committee to send the bill to its demise in conference, and strategically planned the vote with King in mind. King and the SCLC were set to begin what they called the Poor People’s March on Washington on April 22. The bill’s opponents hoped that public disapproval of the protest in the capital would allow Congress to slowly suffocate the measure by avoiding decisive action before the end of the session.
But on the evening of April 4, King’s assassination radically altered the fate of the civil rights bill and brought his grassroots campaign for housing justice directly into the halls of Congress.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 July 1966): 16382, 16384, 16389; Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 2nd sess. (8 August 1966): 18479; Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 2nd sess. (9 August 1966): 18740; Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 1st sess. (16 August 1967): 22751–22752, 22767–22768, 22775, 22777–22778; Congressional Record, Senate, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (6 February 1968): 2279, 2281, 2282; Congressional Record, Senate, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 February 1968): 3423; Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 March 1968): 6481, 6489, 6496; Message from the President of the United States, 89th Cong., 2nd. Sess., H. Doc. 321 (1966); Message from the President of the United States Proposing Enactment of Legislation to Make Authority Against Civil Rights Violence Clear and Sure, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Doc. 432 (1966); Raymond J. Celada, “Analysis of H. R. 2516,” 2 November 1967, Legislative Reference Service; Civil Rights Act, 14 Stat. 27 (1866); H.R. 14765, 89th Cong. (1966); H.R. 2516, 90th Cong. (1967); Atlanta Constitution, 1 August 1966, 4 August 1966, 17 August 1967; Baltimore Sun, 25 July 1966, 11 January 1967, 20 March 1968; Boston Globe, 1 May 1966, 31 July 1966; Chicago Tribune, 30 Jun 1966, 20 September 1966, 21 September 1966; Christian Science Monitor, 2 August 1966; Los Angeles Times, 28 July 1966, 10 August 1966, 17 August 1966; New York Times, 13 January 1966, 8 May 1966, 6 August 1966, 8 August 1966, 10 August 1966, 13 November 1966, 11 January 1967, 12 March 1968, 20 March 1968, 6 April 1968, 11 April 1968; Washington Post, 3 May 1966, 11 July 1966; Kevin Mumford, Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America (New York: New York University Press, 2007); Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” 16 August 1967, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, accessed 20 April 2021, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/where-do-we-go-here.Follow @USHouseHistory