Woman Raises Her Fist During Chicago MLK Rally

The Fight for Fair Housing

Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law. The historic legislation was a long time coming.

One week following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, as fires burned and protests simmered in cities across the country, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law. Formally ending decades of discriminatory housing practices and policies, the Fair Housing Act made it unlawful to discourage or refuse prospective renters or buyers because of their race. To be sure, it was a major legislative victory for Johnson and his supporters in Congress, but it was also the culmination of a much longer grassroots struggle. Below, FOTO looks back at some dramatic moments from the fight for fair housing.


Couple Forced out of Chicago Community Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

When Harvey and Johnetta Clark and their two children moved from Chicago to nearby Cicero, Illinois in June 1951, they encountered stiff resistance. Like many American suburbs in the 1950s, Cicero was a white enclave, and as the Clarks’ moving truck pulled up to their new apartment building, the gathering crowd and hostile police presence made it clear that the Clarks, a black family, were not welcome. The Clarks left, but returned later that month with a court order requiring the police to protect them. (Pictured: Harvey and Johnetta Clark, 1951.)

Troops controlling a white race riot tha Ralph Crane/Black Star/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In July 1951, shortly after the Clarks took up residence in Cicero, thousands of their white neighbors mobbed their apartment building. The mob broke windows, set fires, and destroyed the family’s possessions in a siege that lasted three days before the National Guard finally put a stop to it. (Pictured: the National Guard tries to restore order in Cicero, 1951.)

Harvey E. Clark [Misc.] Ralph Crane/Black Star/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

(Pictured: the wreckage of the Clarks’ home, 1951.)

Racist Sign Historical/Corbis via Getty Images

Stories like the Clarks’ were disturbingly common in the years before the Fair Housing Act, when white communities violently intimidated “encroaching” blacks with relative impunity. (Pictured: a sign at the Sojourner Truth Homes in Detroit, Michigan, 1942.)

Young boys harassing the Baker family, the first African American family to move into the all white Delmar Village neighbourhood of Folcroft, Pennsylvania. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

(Pictured: white boys in Pennsylvania menace the Bakers, the first black family to move to the all-white neighborhood of Delmar Village in Folcroft, Pennsylvania.)


Civil Rights March in DC Buyenlarge/Getty Images

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, fair housing became a key issue for many organizers and activists. Better homes in better neighborhoods were desirable in and of themselves, of course, but they also meant access to better jobs, schools, and social services, and opportunities to build wealth and move towards financial independence. (Pictured: a Civil Rights march in Washington, D.C., circa 1963. One sign reads “We Demand Decent Housing Now!”)

Martin Luther King Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. turned his attention from the South to the North. In the summer of 1966, he came to Chicago to join the fight for fair housing, moving into a rundown apartment on the city’s mostly black West Side. (Pictured: MLK and Coretta Scott King wave from the window of their Chicago apartment.)

Chicago Crowd During Freedom Rally Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

On July 10, 1966, King held a rally at Soldier Field for roughly 30,000 people. Mahalia Jackson and Stevie Wonder were among the attendees.

View Of Crowd Marching In Cicero March Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Throughout the summer, King organized a series of marches in and around the city and its all-white suburbs, including Cicero (pictured).

People At The Open Housing March Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

(Pictured: an open housing march in Chicago, 1966.)

Woman With 'Where Are White Civil Rights?' Sign Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Marchers were regularly harassed. (Pictured: a counterdemonstrator at an open housing march in Chicago, 1966.)

Young Boy Holding Swastika At Cicero March Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

(Pictured: a sign at an open housing march in Cicero, Illinois, 1966.)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Assaulted During March Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

On August 5, at a march in Chicago's Marquette Park, white onlookers threw bricks and rocks at demonstrators. One rock struck King, who fell and had to be helped away.

Chicago Freedom Movement NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The marches continued, in Chicago (pictured) and around the country. On August 9, the House of Representatives passed the Johnson administration’s first attempt at a fair housing bill, but it foundered in the Senate. The next year, 1967, Congress once again tried, and failed, to pass a housing bill.


'Curfew After MLK Riots' PhotoQuest/Getty Images

When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the country erupted. There were massive uprisings in cities across the country, including Washington, D.C. Buildings burned and troops were deployed; the seat of government looked like a war zone.

Downtown Washington After the Martin Luther King Riots Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

(Pictured: soldiers stand in a ruined building in Washington, D.C., 1968.)

Washington DC Race Riots Underwood Archives/Getty Images

(Pictured: smoke rises from burning buildings in Northeast Washington, D.C., 1968.)

Lyndon B. Johnson Meeting with Black Leaders Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

On April 5, Johnson met with black leaders in the White House (pictured) and sent a letter to Congress, urging them to pass a housing bill. “In your hands lies the power to renew for all Americans the great promise of opportunity and justice under law,” the president wrote.

President Johnson Signs Civil Rights Bill Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Congress passed the bill on April 10, and Johnson approved it the next day. (Pictured above: Johnson signing the Fair Housing Act.)

Bill President Johnson Passed Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Sadly, as the investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and others have shown, the Fair Housing Act has not lived up to its promise. From the beginning, the law has been weakly enforced, and one of its main directives to federal agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development — “affirmatively to further the purposes” of the act by promoting fair housing across the country — has been largely ignored.

Though there has been some progress towards open and fair housing in places like Montgomery County, Maryland, and Oak Park, Illinois, much of the country remains highly segregated by race. But there is still the hope — recently voiced by former Minnesota senator Walter Mondale, one of the Fair Housing Act’s co-sponsors — that the law will serve as a “bulwark for advocates of justice and equality, as they advance, inch by inch, toward a fairer, more integrated nation.”