Today in 1968: The Fair Housing Act is signed into law

April 11, 2014

Today in Legal HistorySince the Civil War, there have been a number of civil rights acts enacted that sought to address a variety of racial inequalities, some of the most noteworthy of these were created in the 1960s, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

On April 11, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the last of these, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, into law.  The act is most well known for its Title VIII, which is commonly known as the Fair Housing Act.

The enactment of the law came exactly one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., an event that spurred the passage of the law in the U.S. House on April 10, and its signing by President Johnson the next day.  In 1966, King had participated in marches in Chicago calling for open housing – the same movement that had prompted the conception of the law to begin with.  Johnson argued to the House (which had become increasingly conservative in the late 1960s) that the bill would be a proper tribute to the assassinated civil rights leader.

As a name like the “Fair Housing Act” would suggest, Title VIII prohibits housing discrimination based on an individual’s race, color, religion, or national origin.

This prohibition extends not only to discrimination in the form of an outright refusal to sell or rent property to someone based on a trait described above; it also barred discrimination against someone “in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith.”

Furthermore, the act prohibits any advertisement for the sale or rental of property that specify specific preferences based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

The Fair Housing Act is still in effect today, and the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, an agency within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is responsible for enforcing the law.  However, the law was amended in 1974 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, and in 1988 to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and families with children.

While significant, the Fair Housing Act is not the only significant law to come from the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  The Act also created 18 U.S.C. § 245, which allows federal prosecution against those who willfully interfere with certain federally-protected activities.  These activities include voting, participating in federal benefits program, federal employment (or the seeking thereof), and serving on a federal jury.

§ 245 also has another, “hate crimes” provision that allows for prosecution of the interference of an additional six federally-protected activities if the interference is based on the person’s race, color, religion, or national origin.

The vast majority of the 1968 Civil Right Act’s titles, however, were devoted to Indian affairs, with the most notable of these titles being the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (ICRA), which makes the majority of the guarantees found in the Bill of Rights applicable within tribal nations.

The Supreme Court significantly diminished the reach of ICRA in its 1978 Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez ruling, which held that federal courts lack the power to review any complaints of ICRA violations by a tribal government except habeas corpus actions.

While ICRA is nonetheless significant in the field of Indian law, the most significant legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 remains the Fair Housing Act.

Since, unlike the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s anti-voting discrimination measures, the Fair Housing Act doesn’t seem particular at risk of dismantling by the Supreme Court, the 1968’s foremost legacy appears to be here to stay.