Fair Housing Act of 1968

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 (FHA), or Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin in the sale, rental, or financing of housing units. Signed into law on April 11, 1968, the FHA was a significant legislation of President Lyndon B. Johnson that attempted to provide equal housing opportunities to minorities, particularly African Americans, in an era of civil unrest (Lippard and Gallagher).

In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, mass protests expanded to address residential segregation. African Americans were often denied access to decent housing and were instead forced to concentrate in primarily black communities, or ghettos, with deplorable living conditions (Carson). In addition to poor housing, systematic racial segregation had economic, social, and political implications from the lack of job and educational opportunities surrounding the slums. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. moved to a Chicago slum in 1966 to bring public attention to the poor housing conditions as well as the health and employment disparities in the predominately black areas of the city and its suburbs. Leader of the Chicago Freedom Movement, MLK reflected on how the anti-civil rights demonstrations in Chicago were more violent than those he experienced in the South (Momodu). Hostile rioting persuaded Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to form an agreement with MLK that would open new public housing in predominately white areas to citizens regardless of race, inspiring the development of the FHA in 1968 (Momodu).

Protest for Fair Housing and Desegregation, 1965 (“Fair Housing Demonstration”)

Lorraine Hansberry adapted her personal experiences with race restrictive covenants in her play A Raisin in the Sun. Debuting on Broadway in 1959, the critically-acclaimed play recounts the story of a black family who moves from one of the most densely populated ghettos in South Side Chicago to an all-white neighborhood despite local resistance of the white community. In dramatizing Chicago’s social order, Hansberry was able to challenge the cyclic system of ghettoization, segregation, and organized white resistance on a national stage (Gordon). The Hansberry House, implicated in the Hansberry v. Lee lawsuit in which Lorraine’s family succeeded in purchasing, has since been memorialized as a landmark in 2010.

(“A Raisin In The Sun – All Of It”)

U.S. Senator Edward Brooke on the Feb 17, 1967 cover of TIME Magazine (Koerner)

Soldiers were not exempt from discrimination as exemplified by Lieut. Carlos Campbell of Detroit who was turned away from all but one of 36 housing applications in Northern Virginia (Payne). Senator Edward Brooke, the nation’s first popularly-elected African American senator, shared his frustrations of finding housing after his return from WWII. Brooke’s accomplishments in advancing black interests and combating racial discrimination in housing distinguished him as a civil rights activist who was commemorated on a 1967 cover of TIME magazine (Koerner). His work led him to co-author the FHA in which he cautioned, “Fair housing does not promise an end to the ghetto. It promises only to demonstrate that the ghetto is not an immutable institution in America” (U.S. House of Rep.). Brooke’s contribution to housing equality for the black community was recognized in 2004 when President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom (U.S. House of Rep.).

Although dominant memory may present the Fair Housing Act of 1968 as a successful outcome of the Civil Rights Movement and progress towards racial equality, its legislative history suggests other motives for its being passed into law. Prior versions of the bill that had failed to be passed in 1966 and 1967 generated apathy among many black citizens who did not attend a congressional hearing on fair housing because they had “lost faith in the will of Congress to do anything to help minorities” (Payne). Enactment of the FHA was not only doubted by the public but also by legislators. Otto J. Hetzel, a lawyer who worked on the 1968 Civil Rights bill upon starting at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was told by General Counsel Tom McGrath that the bill was unlikely to “go anywhere” (Hetzel). It was only when MLK was assassinated that President Lyndon Johnson pressured Congress to pass the bill to calm the resultant racial tensions and riots. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was thus approved by a slim margin one week after MLK’s death (Lippard and Gallagher).

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Fair Housing Act, April 11, 1968 (Library of Congress)

Due to Congress’ insincere interests in passing the FHA, the law had weak enforcement provisions, was underfunded by the federal government, and failed to resolve the systemic racism in housing that persists today. African Americans lacked the encouragement to integrate and were often unable to afford housing in predominately white neighborhoods (Delaney). Analyses of segregation trends reveal that movement towards integration was slight between the years of 1970 and 1980 and has continued to increase only modestly (Massey). Integration in the United States has also shown inconsistency, with many metropolitan areas hosting largely segregated communities (Massey). While the FHA improved societal attitudes towards minorities, it was unable to end racial discrimination in housing and segregation.

Obama was the first president since the Lyndon B. Johnson era to revisit the FHA and address residential segregation (Badger and Eligon). Amendment of the bill in 1974 and 1988 further prohibited housing discrimination based on sex and expanded legal protection to those with a disability and families with children, contributing to processual memory of the law’s significance (Lippard and Gallagher). The “affirmatively furthering fair housing rule” of 2015 expands upon a statement in the original Fair Housing Act of 1968 to encourage desegregation (Badger and Eligon). Only recently has the nation acknowledged the weaknesses of the FHA and the lack of change to improve segregation since the bill’s passing. President Donald Trump’s suspension of the Obama-era initiative that requires communities to analyze racial inequality in their housing and submit plans to reverse policies that contribute to segregation is indicative of the racism that continues to exist in modern day politics. Such racism can be contributed to the often untold legislative history of the FHA that demonstrates how racial equality was not ever widely accepted by the core of the United States government.

Claudia Foubert


“A Raisin In The Sun – All Of It.” YouTube, SonyPictureDVD, 8 May 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=84EAbPDRQ4k&feature=youtu.be.

Badger, Emily, and John Eligon. “Trump Administration Postpones an Obama Fair-Housing Rule.” NY Times, Jan 04, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/04/upshot/trump-delays-hud-fair-housing-obama-rule.html 

Carson, Ben. “50 Years After the Fair Housing Act & MLK’s Death, King’s Dream Lives on: Ben Carson.” USA Today, 19 Apr, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/04/10/ben-carson-mlk-martin-luther-king-fair-housing-act-column/497648002/ 

Delaney, Paul. “Fair Housing Law Held Ineffective.” New York Times (1923), 1970, pp. 21. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/118951226?accountid=14244.

“Fair Housing Demonstration.” Democracy Journal, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Inc, 2017, democracyjournal.org/magazine/46/racism-didnt-stop-at-jim-crow/.

Gordon, Michelle. “‘Somewhat Like War’: The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black Liberation, and a Raisin in the Sun.” African American Review, vol. 42, no. 1, 2008, pp. 121-133.

Hetzel, OJ. “Reflections on the Enactment of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.” Urban Lawyer, vol. 48, no. 2, 2016, pp. 311-327.

Koerner, Henry. “The Feb. 17, 1967, Cover of TIME.” TIME, TIME, 13 Feb. 2017, time.com/4661821/50-years-ago-edward-brooke/.

Library of Congress. “President Lyndon Johnson Signing the Fair Housing Act, 1968.” National Museum of American History, National Museum of American History, 11 Apr. 2018, americanhistory.si.edu/blog/fair-housing.

Lippard, Cameron D. and Charles A. Gallagher. Race and Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic [4 Volumes]. Greenwood, 2014. EBSCOhost.

Massey, Douglas S. “The Legacy of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.” Sociological forum (Randolph, N.J.) 30.Suppl 1 (2015): 571–588. PMC. Web. 19 Apr. 2018.

Momodu, Samuel. “Chicago Freedom Movement (1965–1967) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.” BlackPast.org Blog, 19 Apr. 2018, http://www.blackpast.org/aah/chicago-freedom-movement-1965-1967

Payne, Ethel L. “Passage of Federal Fair Housing Measure Predicted.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Aug 28, 1967, pp. 12. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/494311026?accountid=14244.

U.S. House of Representatives. “Brooke, Edward William, III.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, U.S. Senate Historical Office, 19 Apr. 2018, history.house.gov/People/Detail?id=9905