Recently, I was part of a group of public interest lawyers sponsoring a free housing seminar in Maryland, where we listened to dozens of homeowners who came out on a chilly, damp weeknight because they were almost all facing foreclosure. Most of the homeowners needing help that night were either African American or Latino. Almost all of them had been sold a "predatory" sub-prime loan product, a costlier mortgage that is the new face of racial discrimination in housing in America. The loans they had been sold were slowly compromising their financial futures.
Forty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the law that sought to render the housing market fair and equal in America, the face of unequal housing is still mostly African-American.
It was not supposed to be this way. On April 11, 1968, just one week after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Lyndon Johnson, signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968 into law in a crowded White House ceremony. That day was supposed to signal we were on our way to racial justice in housing in America.
The law Johnson signed was flawed, but it was a beginning. American cities were largely segregated back then. Racial covenants and redlining guaranteed two Americans – one white, and one black. Johnson, the optimist, called the signing of the law, one of the "proudest moments of my Presidency."
Without the murder of Dr. King on April 4, 1968, it is doubtful that the Fair Housing Act would have passed. Political resistance to a civil rights bill addressing housing discrimination was fierce for decades. Much of white America had begun to grow weary of civil rights. But Johnson still pressed on to fight the good fight regarding fair housing. He initially introduced the bill in 1966, stating: "As long as the color of a man's skin determines his choice of housing, no amount of physical rebuilding of our cities will free the men and women living there."
Unfortunately, in 1966, the bill had no chance of passage. But Johnson had a wild card: the civil rights movement. In 1966, "the movement" was still alive thanks in part to the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. who put housing high on his agenda. In January 1966, King, his family and his non-violent movement for social change moved to Chicago to protest slum housing. King moved into a renovated South Side tenement and began preparing for protests that sought to challenge the "urban North" on its own history of segregation.
He joined in alliance with the existing and fiery "Chicago Freedom Movement" and immediately brought strong media coverage to the overlooked issue of entrenched racial segregation and inequality in the North.
But even with the media attention, King's task was difficult. Not only were King and the movement staring at a brand of segregation that was part of the social and political fabric of Chicago; King would have to lock horns with the city's powerful and immovable mayor, Richard J. Daley. And King had another problem too. His non-violent ministry of social justice so successful in the South had far less support in Chicago amongst black Americans. Still, King pressed on.
He led two courageous marches into segregated white neighborhoods. Both times, King and the marchers were pelted with bricks and bottles by whites that had gathered. Later, King would say the resistance he faced was fiercer that any of the resistance he had ever faced in the South.
His attempts to gain promises on housing from Mayor Daley also were largely unsuccessful as well. Daley boasted of the city's existing civil rights laws and his own support for liberal causes to render King politically impotent. By August 1966, King's Chicago experiment had stalled. He left the city without any major political victories.
At the same time of King's failings, President Lyndon Johnson wasn't having much luck either. Johnson's fair housing bill stalled in 1966 and 1967 and was stalling in 1968. The U.S. Senate had passed a watered down version of the bill in March 1968, but the U.S. House of Representatives promised strong resistance.
Then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot and killed in Memphis, the riots began and President Johnson seized the time. He urged the political leadership holding up the law's passage to "renew for all Americans the great promise of opportunity and justice under the law…" by passing the Fair Housing Act.
Gerald Ford, the future president, and the Republican Minority leader in the House, under the influence of the National Board of Realtors, tried to stop the law one final time for old time's sake. But in the end, the bill passed. Johnson signed it into law as Thurgood Marshall looked on along with [black republican] Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.
"The voice of justice speaks again," Johnson stated after signing the bill, "…fair housing for all is now a part of the American way of life…"
Johnson's statement that day was overly optimistic. Considering that the country was largely segregated by race in 1968 due to discriminatory housing practices, fair housing was a long way off. Discriminatory incidents were rampant in 1968 and still are now (over 10,000 reported incidents in 2006 according to the latest HUD report). Many major cities and metropolitan areas are either still segregated or re-segregating 40 years after Johnson's moment.
But even more cunning, housing discrimination has taken on a new form in the 21st century. Redlining is not the worry; now the problem is African Americans are being disproportionately sold loans that are more costly and default-prone. This is even in situations where their credit scores are good and they qualify for a top-of-the-market loan.
During the recent housing boom, African Americans, across income lines, were much more likely than white Americans to wind up with a predatory loan product that endangered their financial future than any other racial group.
Thus, 40 years after the death of Dr. King and the passage of the housing law that his passing helped to make real, Lyndon Johnson's vision of an America with truly fair housing has not yet arrived. A new battle has been joined; many more of us than expected are part of that continuing struggle.
Brian Gilmore is a Washington, D.C. lawyer and poet.