King’s Last Victory
The Civil Rights Act of 1968
Exactly one week after Martin Luther King’s murder, President Lyndon Johnson signed the third great civil rights act of the twentieth century, the last of what historians call the civil rights era. Supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, said that they wished to pay homage to King and to show restive ghetto-dwellers that hope was not lost. Since his strategic shift to northern cities in 1965–66, King had been losing hope of achieving victory with the housing bill. But the bill’s prospects changed when King died. The resulting act was not just a symbolic purge of emotion, or a mere show of respect. It was a substantive answer to some of King’s most radical demands and his last real victory.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968 has been almost completely forgotten—unlike the previous two major civil rights acts, of 1964 and 1965, which people reflexively attribute to King and the movement he led. Yet many in the black freedom movement saw housing as the final frontier. School desegregation had aimed to undo the effects of residential segregation, but white flight from desegregated schools had in fact intensified residential segregation, in a vicious circle that threatened to restore and fortify Jim Crow. Housing was a tough nut to crack, because it was largely a private market of individual transactions.1
Before King died, the housing act’s supporters, including King, had doubted that any serious civil rights legislation could pass, given the widespread white reaction to the long hot summers of rioting, in 1965, 1966, and 1967. The Johnson administration had conceived the new bill in 1965, to complete the restoration of civil rights in the president’s Great Society program. President Johnson announced a major campaign to pass the bill in April 1966, with King and other civil rights leaders at his side at the White House.2 As the 1964 act guaranteed equal employment and equal access to hotels, cafés, theaters, parks, pools, rinks, and the like, and the 1965 act guaranteed equal access to the ballot, the final act would guarantee equal access to the market for private homes—including the financing that most Americans needed in order to be in that market. If it ever passed, that is.
A home of one’s own had become the new version of the American dream when post–World War II subsidies and loan guarantees put a freestanding, single-family house within reach for an expanding middle class. Housing had been a basic civil right since the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which declared that former slaves had the same right as everybody else “to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.” The right to housing then expanded, haltingly, in roughly the manner that the elective franchise had previously expanded. Thousands had gained access to housing in Supreme Court decisions, in acts of Congress in 1934, 1938, 1944, and 1949, as well as in minor appropriations for housing and urban development, and in much state legislation. The new bill aimed to complete the picture by banning the discrimination that previous policies had left untouched: in most of the private market.3
Moderates like Republican representative Charles Matthias of Maryland watered down the first version of the bill in 1966. Matthias’s amendment, reducing the act’s coverage to large-scale apartments and transactions of the biggest real estate firms—only about 40 percent of the nation’s yearly housing trade, rather than the 100 percent the administration seemed to envision—had weakened the administration’s bill so much that King said it was no longer worth passing. Its passage would only spawn false hopes and ultimately increase urban despair and violence.4 The amended bill passed the House in 1966. But even that weak version was too strong for the Senate, whose axis of rural northern Republicans and southern Democrats choked it off with a filibuster.5
Though it was an omnibus bill, which also sought to integrate federal and state juries and to protect civil rights workers from vigilante attacks, most of the controversy focused on its housing provisions. From Reconstruction on, segregationists held private space to be politically inviolable. This was a central tenet of their ideology. They might concede formal equality in law courts and as an abstract principle or a distant goal. But southern Democrats could rally angry masses to resist encroachments on schools, churches, small businesses—and in the twentieth century, increasingly, urban residential neighborhoods. The tactic often worked by insinuating a motive of sexual predation whenever black citizens violated white southerners’ notion of their proper “place.” By emphasizing respectable principles of private property, segregationists could also appeal across sectional and party lines. The modern “conservative” ideology of pro-big-business Republicans in the North and West similarly targeted a national government, hell-bent on elbowing its way into “private” businesses. Such a government might soon encroach on other “property,” such as residences. A man’s home is his castle, was an ancient common-law principle.
Early in the next session in 1967, President Johnson urged Congress to try again to complete the civil rights revolution, urging action on his comprehensive bill to end discrimination in housing. Prospects for passage of the great new act remained dim, however.6
Nobody was gloomier about the reintroduced housing bill’s prospects, or more ardent about the need to pass it, than King. Against strong resistance within King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and outside it, King was already organizing the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). King’s ambition was to organize the nation’s poor, of all races, to demand action from the federal government, to alleviate their misery and give them hope of a decent life and truly equal opportunity for their children. In addition to testing the patience of that government at a moment when voter sentiment appeared to range from indifferent to fed-up with protests and social problems, the venture took King far from the self-restrained and largely middle-class adult culture of the black churches that had nurtured and disciplined his successful ventures in his southern homeland. King was proposing now to stage massive demonstrations in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 1968, with a broad agenda that named open housing—including nondiscriminatory financing—as one of its most urgent demands. Open housing was the goal that had recently been within Congress’s reach. King sometimes made it clear, as he usually had in the past, that he would accept a partial victory, to end the disruption of commerce in return for achievement of some of his goals. But King threatened that if Congress did not act upon the movement’s demands in the spring, there would be massive demonstrations at the major party conventions that summer.7
King clearly feared that the days of civil rights success were numbered. Internal squabbles and increasingly wily resistance had hobbled the movement since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and civil rights leaders could not agree on what their next goal should be. Racial discrimination could not compete with the war in Vietnam as a provocation for mass protests. For King that meant he should rally whatever he could salvage of his movement. His well-connected middle-class allies were growing ever fainter at heart. The time had come to muster the forces who had the least to lose and most to gain, those who had been left out of the progress so far: the poor, of all races. To that population he devoted his time—whatever he did not divert to the Vietnam War—with increasing abandon in the last years of his life. Such progress as Congress was making probably resulted from the threat of renewed demonstrations. King knew that his using force made much of white America restless and resentful. The point now was to ensure that the force was not used in vain. He had to stick to his plan, though it sickened him in some ways more than it sickened his fair-weather friends. As one biographer put it, “All of King’s previous campaigns had suffered adverse criticism, but none rivaled the nearly universal hostility his Washington project was generating.”8
Doubts and fears engulfed King in this period, frequently overwhelming him. Many of his own people questioned his tactics and judgment. Bayard Rustin was King’s most brilliant tactician—nobody left on King’s staff could match his virtuosity in knowing when to launch a surprise first strike and when to beat a strategic retreat. But in anticipation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rustin declared in his famous essay, “From Protest to Politics,” that the movement should shift its energies away from the streets, and use its new electoral power to bring concrete changes. To King that was too much of a retreat. He had never believed that political work should cease or diminish just because protests were going on. For King, protest and politics were partners, not rivals. Protest was the military force behind the diplomacy and horse-trading of politics, enabling him to negotiate from a position of strength.
Many in the movement feared that the April march would break out in violence. One of King’s friends and most respected board members, Marian Logan of New York, confronted King even more starkly than Rustin had. She doubted “very seriously” that the April protests would yield success on the civil rights bill. “If anything, the demonstrations may well harden congressional resistance and create an atmosphere conducive not only to the victory of reactionary candidates in the coming elections, but also to the defeat of those candidates who are, or would be, friendly to the social and economic objectives of our struggle.” Like Rustin, Logan thought King had planned the demonstrations “inadequately,” which made her “troubled and unhappy.” King called her almost daily, his biographer David Garrow explains, and wrote to her and her husband, trying to get her to withdraw her complaint to the board. He insisted “we are too far gone to turn around. . . . We certainly have nothing to lose.”9
Even radicals who stayed close to King—James Bevel and Jesse Jackson, in particular—persistently opposed the idea of the Washington demonstrations, and even the PPC itself. King openly began to suspect that Jackson was undermining him, trying to hijack the movement in a direction of his own.10 The White House was warming up to the tactic of blaming King for the riots, too. Staffer Larry Temple wrote to President Johnson in early February, “When Martin Luther King talks about violating the law by obstructing the flow of traffic . . . he is talking about criminal disobedience. . . . ‘Civil disobedience’ is a complete misnomer. . . . As the time nears for Dr. King’s April activities, I hope the President will publicly unmask this type of conduct for what it really is.”11 The FBI was predicting a “massive bloodbath in the nation’s capital” and worked to stir up public indignation against it.
And yet King himself feared the outbreak of April violence. He was increasingly haunted by thoughts of his forces spinning out of control. His new recruits shared none of his rather buttoned-up, Victorian sense of middle-class Christian propriety. As a yet-unformed coalition of diverse groups, they had no common culture or tradition, indeed shared little beyond inexperience, desperation, and perhaps a temptation to grab whatever short-term advantage they could and think about the consequences later. King worried that the plan might have to be called off and said in March that he thought the D.C. demonstration was “doomed.”12
Mitigating King’s pessimism but intensifying his sense of urgency were occasional signs that the public might respond positively to urban despair. On August 21, 1967, Newsweek had published a Harris poll showing that white Americans “are ready and willing to pay the price for a massive, Federal onslaught on the root problems of the ghetto.” Ultimately, that helped get King over his own hesitations and second thoughts about initiating the April demonstrations in Washington. Dramatizations of that despair—his own or those of unruly rioters—might move or scare enough affluent Americans to demand the legislation he wanted. Speaking to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce in early February 1968, King gave a hint as to why he was not following Rustin’s advice to abandon protests in favor of working within the system. If violence broke out in the ghettoes again that summer, he said, “I don’t have any faith in the whites in power responding in the right way. . . . They’ll throw us into concentration camps. The Wallaces and the Bircherites will take over. The sick people and the fascists will be strengthened.” His spring project, launching the Poor People’s Crusade in Washington, had to succeed, he believed, to prove that outsiders could still get a hearing by nonviolent means. It was time to go all out, despite the criticisms of his allies. “We’re going to plague Congress,” he said.13
Opponents of the bill mercilessly flung King’s name about as a symbol of all that had gone wrong in America. King was fomenting disorder, they said. He claimed to be “nonviolent,” but in fact he preached and practiced disrespect for the law. King’s call for civil disobedience was the “high-water mark for perfidy against the United States,” said Congressman Roman Pucinski of Chicago. It was “inconceivable” to Pucinski “that there can remain any doubt that Martin Luther King is determined to destroy America from within.” By choosing to obey the laws he liked and to violate those he disliked, King used his charisma—and the authority conferred on him by congressional attention, a Nobel Prize, and adoring masses—to turn lawlessness into a moral imperative.14
Prospects for passage of a housing act were dim, particularly in the House, which had grown more conservative after the 1966 elections.
Established black leaders from older civil rights organizations mobilized to pass some form of the bill and to restore the respectability of the cause.15 From today’s perspective, people across the spectrum tend to exaggerate King’s respectability in his own day, when black and white liberals often saw him as a troublemaker and loose cannon. The director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Roy Wilkins, who had often clashed with King, accused King of “bowing to the trend” of black militants and of putting an “alarming twist” on the whole idea of peaceful demonstrations.16 Wilkins and other black establishment leaders were poised to outflank King and do the visibly effective, old-fashioned work of getting legislation passed. It seemed that many wanted to deny King not only the ability to sabotage the bill’s chances with what they saw as his reckless and recalcitrant plan to shut down the capital in a few weeks.17 They also wanted to deny him the ability to take credit for it.
Prominent religious leaders piled the pressure on Congress. Soon an impressive list of business magnates, including chief executives or chairmen of Allied Chemical, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, and major banks in Chicago—the hometown of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen—gave the bill a jarring flicker of feasibility.18 White flight may have convinced some of the business leaders that housing desegregation would not impinge on them. Black home-seekers were a rare sight in high-rent districts and expensive new suburban enclaves.
Excerpted from Waking from the Dream by David L. Chappell. Copyright © 2014 by David L. Chappell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.