AUSTIN — April 11 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Fair Housing Act by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The landmark legislation prohibited discrimination when it comes to housing. In Texas This Week, Ashley Goudeau sits down with LBJ Library Archivist Brian McNerney to discuss the significance of the legislation.
Goudeau: Fifty years ago, when President Lyndon Baines Johnson was working on this legislation, it was very controversial and partly because of the racial tensions we were having in the country at the time. Set the scene for us; talk to us about what was going on in America at that time.
McNerney: Well Lyndon Johnson of course had attempted several civil rights initiatives over his presidency and this was really the last big one that he had hoped to do. So early in his office he passed the Civil Rights Act, which of course was dramatically important. Then the Voting Rights Act. In 1966, they did get an open housing bill through that began to address the problem of discrimination in housing and the ability of any American to buy a house wherever they wanted to live. But it took, unfortunately, the death of Martin Luther King to provide the moment of crisis that he saw as the opportunity to go back to the Congress and push hard to finish completing those goals that had been originally there in the Open Housing Act in ’66. And he did, he successfully got it through. Not without a little bit of wrangling but, you know, there was immense disturbance across the land in the early days of April and the death of Martin Luther King obviously ignited that, there was violence in the cities. And it was only a few days before that, that President Johnson had gone of the television, on March 31, and made the historic speech announcing he would not run for re-election, which was a shock to almost everybody. So it’s very ironic that, you know, he had this immense sense of relief that the burden was off him so to speak, but, you know, several days later Martin Luther King gets killed, he’s right back in the fray and, you know, he was not going to let go until that famous last part of the Civil Rights Act got completed.
Goudeau: You know they say that President Johnson was a man who would capitalize on issues such as that, JFK’s assassination, Dr. King’s assassination. Do you think that really helped propel the Fair Housing Act forward?
McNerney: I do. And I think it would be a fair assumption to wonder whether that act would have happened, certainly under him. You know, with Richard Nixon it’s hard to tell if there would have been momentum. But he felt the closing time, as soon as he made that speech on March 31, he realized he only had about nine months to complete everything he wanted to do. One of the things I talked about at the Austin Fair Housing Summit a little bit is, it was only December that year that he came back here to Austin, while he was still president, for the last really major public event and he attended the opening of the Austin Oaks Housing Project. Which was really appropriate because that’s 50 years after his 1938 speech about "The Tarnish on the Violet Crown." The Violet Crown being Austin and which he made a passionate appeal to address the slums and the ghettos here in Austin. So he felt the press of time. And I know that, of course, he would do everything he could to try to accomplish that Fair Housing Act, but that really created that moment, that momentum that he was such a brilliant politician to capitalizing on.
Goudeau: Providing aide to the poor was something LBJ was extremely passionate about and part of that is because of his background and what he did before he became a politician. Talk to us about some of his experiences.
McNerney: Well of course he grew up in the Hill Country, you know on a ranch basically. There was a town, Johnson City and he moved back and forth between what later became the family ranch and the small, really hamlet of Johnson City. Well the conditions, we’re talking the 1920s, you know, the conditions were pretty rough by today’s standards. There generally was not indoor plumbing. There was no electricity. So when nightfall came, everything stopped. And during the depression, of course, things became really intense and adverse and people were living a hard, scrabbled existence. He left there and went to Texas State. At that time Texas State Teacher’s College, Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, and undertook his graduate studies. Toward the end of that, he had an assignment in Cotulla, Texas, that he was able to go down and teach and actually act as a principal at the well housing school in Southern Texas, very close to the border. HIs time there really sensitized him to the plight of people, not only people of color, but people of limited means. People that were living in poverty and had only ever known poverty. And one of the first things he did is he wrote back to his mother Ladybird, or I’m sorry, Rebekah Baines Johnson, and asked Rebekah, "Please send a box of toothbrushes ’cause this kids had nothing." And that experience I think proved very formative and throughout his career, he referred back to it, toward the sensitizing experience of seeing these poor kids. And I think he carried that with him and when he became president, he saw the opportunity to try to right the wrongs that he had witnessed throughout his life.
Goudeau: The Fair Housing Act came at a time in America when we were seeing widespread discrimination when it came to housing. Tell us about some of that.
McNerney: Well, essentially, you had a situation where you had white flight to the suburbs. You know, the inner cities certainly were under enormous pressure and they were deteriorating rapidly. Johnson undertook programs like demonstration cities and model cities program. He recognized that there needed to be revitalization, but what happened was you ended up creating racial ghettos. And people were trapped. In cities like Chicago, Cabrini Green, Cleveland, Detroit, many of them the northern cities ironically that experienced the frustration first because earlier in the century, so many African-American people had left the Deep South, leaving for opportunity and gone north. Well, you had this huge number of people and not enough housing. Well, to avoid integrated neighborhoods, now I don’t think they thought of it that way, but white people would pack up and move to the suburbs and there was a tendency to build Levittowns or these sprawling suburban communities that are pretty much the norm in America today. Well, the problem is when African-Americans or minorities of any race try to follow and also seize the opportunity that those suburbs offered, they couldn’t. They weren’t allowed into the communities, they were blocked out. And repeatedly this was a problem. Even when there were times when a family could move in, then the white people in that family, in that community, would start leaving. That was not an acceptable condition. I mean, ultimately LBJ believed in the need that we were all in this together. We’re all in the same big boat. And we’ve got to learn to live with each other. If I can give one last example, in 1968, in Austin in Austin Oaks, the last housing project he visited, they had intended to place African-American and Hispanic families together in the same housing project, which still stands today. And at first a study at the University of Texas came out saying, well, no these people can’t live together. They can’t live in harmony. You know, there’s no way you’re going to be able to get them. And in fact, one of the conditions of that project was every house had to have some service member. So in many cases, people who had fought in World War II, people who had fought in the Korean War and Vietnam War and certainly he had lived in an integrated environment, came out and said, "Wait a minute, we are not having a problem, we don’t care what the color of our neighbor’s skin is, we need affordable housing that we can live in and grow and raise our families." And, in fact, that is what happened, and that community turned out to be very successful. And I think that’s the story across many of Lyndon Johnson’s initiatives. He did not always get what he was seeking and in the Austin Oaks opening event, he made a speech and he said, "We are not done. We have not accomplished what we’re after. We don’t have enough affordable housing that is decent for people to live in." So I think he recognized after everything he had done, after the Fair Housing Act, after the Opening Housing Act and the other parts of the Civil Rights Bill, there was work still left to be done. And at a certain part he had to hand that over to his successor and future presidents. And I think, even today, we struggle here in Austin. We still have a Fair Housing Summit because we’re still addressing I think some of the fundamental problems of inequity, of income inequality of discrimination.
Goudeau: It is interesting that in one of the last public appearances that he made as president he said there’s still more work to do.
McNerney: Yeah, well, and I think it must have been awfully hard for him once he had stepped away from ,you know, the White House, to watch as an observer but he knew it was his time to leave the stage and pass it on. Part of what he did to ensure that the roots of progress were planted is he appointed Robert Weaver as the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And he was the first African-American cabinet-level position ever appointed in the United States government. So he recognized at the highest levels, you needed that, of all colors, of all backgrounds. He didn’t yet appoint a woman to that office but I think if he had been president long enough he would have gotten there.
Goudeau: You know, you mentioned during this Fair Housing Summit, the first Fair Housing Summit, it was necessary because while we’ve come so far, we still have quite a ways to go.
McNerney: I think so. And I was very proud to be at the event the other night when Mayor Adler was there and the work that he’s done with veterans here in Austin. Obviously, Austin faces enormous struggles with income inequality and gentrification, but communities all across America do. And what I think we’ve learned from Lyndon Johnson’s example is you’ve got to have people that are passionate, that are articulate, that are engaged — citizens that are willing to pick up the task and carry it forward and keep working and doing what we need to do to create a more equitable society. And I think the folks that were gathered in that room from all over the country are committed the that objective.
To learn more about the Fair Housing Act and LBJ’s legacy, you can visit his library on the University of Texas campus. It’s open seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.