The Naked Truth/Jamala Rogers
Little to Celebrate in Fair Housing
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Despite a boatload of
racial discrimination incidents and lawsuits, the legislation had a hard time passing until
all hell broke loose in U.S. cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
President Lyndon B. Johnson pressured the House of Representatives to sign days before
the King funeral. Fifty years later, what does the country have to show for the momentous
struggles for decent, accessible and affordable housing?
The Fair Housing Act was part of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1968. Title VIII of the CRA
was supposed to prohibit discrimination of the sale, rental and financing of housing based
on race, religion, national origin or sex. A 1988 amendment was passed later that
expanded the original protected classes to include differently-abled and family status. The
lack of progress in the area of fair housing is beyond disappointing; it is criminal. More
directly, it’s against the law to discriminate; yet it’s happening every day.
Most cities made little progress in opening housing to the protected class of race and
ethnicity. Racial segregation prevails, and re-segregation has followed. Every city in
America where Black people reside, the vestiges of redlining and restrictive covenants
take their toll. Gentrification aka Black removal has added to the pain. Throw in poverty
and economic policies of injustice and you have a formula for nothing short of a Bantustan
(racially segregated communities under South African apartheid).
In Milwaukee, the celebration to mark the anniversary of the Fair Housing Act is about the
future, not just the past. Milwaukee always makes it on somebody’s list of the most
segregated cities in the country. I’m not singling out the city; my St. Louis makes the same
Most cities can document the fight for fair housing starting long before 1968. After years of
housing injustices, the late icon Vel Phillips, the city’s first African American alderwoman,
attempted to pass a fair housing ordinance in 1962 but it was trounced 18-1. In St. Louis,
we had the Shelly v. Kraemer housing case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court
in 1948 and should’ve put an end to racist housing covenants. Detroit had McGhee v.
Sipes that was also argued before the High Court.
And while every urban center can point to a historic struggle or protest to achieve fair
housing legislation, I think Milwaukee has one of the more captivating stories.
A white priest and the NAACP Youth Council were at the forefront of organizing the fight for
open housing. Father James Groppi, the Council and concerned citizens kicked off the
infamous 200 days of protests on August 28, 1967 to push for fair housing laws. The
militant and disciplined Commandos, composed of young Black men, provided security for
the marchers who often faced violent and racist white folks. Two hundred consecutive
days — that’s a long time to sustain any kind of action especially braving winter
conditions. Their courageous efforts led to a model piece of legislation, but they soon found
out there was little political will to make the systemic changes that a city like Milwaukee
Last year on the 50 anniversary of the housing protests, 200 Nights of Freedom was
launched to commemorate the history of the open housing struggles and its leaders. The
intergenerational, multiracial March on Milwaukee 50th Committee is looking towards the
future and the building of a city that provides all its citizens with basic needs and re-
imagines new solutions to old problems like poverty, incarceration, racism.
Madison’s Black population doesn’t come close to Milwaukee’s nearly 70 percent. Yet, the
issues of segregated housing are also real and present. Reports like ‘Impediment to Fair
Housing Choice” made it clear that if you’re poor, Black and a single mom, you have few
options. Systemic racism and economic oppression have already made your choices for
you. Other studies have underscored the importance of where one lives to their life
success and even to their life expectancy.
The spirit of invigoration by the 200 Nights of Freedom and similar commemorations this
year provide this country with the opportunity to re-commit itself to fair and open housing.
This struggle is far from over.