The Secret History of the 1968 Civil Rights Act
What the fight of Lyndon Johnson's political life says about the nature of transformative politics.
Made up of ten titles, the 1968 Civil Rights Act consisted of a broad swath of separate issues relating to civil rights that were not covered in the previous civil rights bills. Title I of the act addressed intimidation and assault of civil rights workers. Titles II to VII involved Native American affairs. But the heart of the bill was in Titles VIII to IX. Known by themselves as the “Fair Housing Act,” these titles, among other things, made individual acts of explicit racial discrimination in housing transactions illegal. Apart from sporadic administrative changes made to ease enforcement, this law has been left largely unchanged in the 54 years since its passage.
To this day, this is the extent of the federal government’s involvement on fair housing: language written over half a century ago. And in the years since then, residential racial segregation has declined. But if the ultimate purpose of the legislation was to integrate America’s homes and schools, it failed. The demographic geography of America, especially in its cities, is still segregated by race, and the issues that fair housing was such a potentially potent solution for—gaps in quality of education, prejudiced attitudes, poverty among minority groups, among so many other things—remain as relevant today as they were in 1968.
In recent years, the dire state of life in America’s cities has received increased attention, and rightfully so. You don’t need me to tell you about YIMBYs: they’ll gladly do it for you. And many of the points these groups and individuals make about where America’s housing policies have gone wrong, and what should be done to fix them, are undeniably true. But in listening to these groups, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is an entirely new issue: that no one cared about the horror that is the American cityscape until roughly the mid-2010s, when a few brave souls noticed that Palo Alto did not have enough bike lanes.
This has always come across as remarkably unserious to me. For as thorough as YIMBYs can be in learning every minute detail on the merits of their policies, almost no interest is shown in the history of their own movement. And it shows. Whenever they make a push, YIMBYs seem to always frame their preferred policies as new, genius technocratic fixes to America’s ills—just common sense! They then present their common-sense solutions to their local authorities, seemingly expecting everyone to be amazed by the merits of their proposals. Then they lose. Then they go onto Twitter in shock to declare that San Francisco, or wherever they live, must be the most conservative city in America for treating them so unfairly.
It would be funny if the issue at hand weren’t so serious. America desperately needs a real push for fair housing laws: a movement that doesn’t just understand how good its own policies are, but also knows its own history, knows its opponents, and has an idea for what a coalition capable of passing its policies might look like. And for all of its flaws and limitations, the 1968 Civil Rights Act stands as the only time this has been done.
At first glance, the convincing margins the bill passed by (71-20 in favor in the Senate, 250-71 in the House) seems to promise a simple story. But the actual history of the act—a two-and-a-half-year long saga spanning riots, betrayal, a political collapse, backroom deals, and a murder—was anything but. It’s a complex story. But at the heart of it are the answers to two central questions:
What did it take for Lyndon Johnson to succeed where everyone else, before or since, has failed? And can it be done again?
President Lyndon Baines Johnson entered his first full term as president in January 1965 in as strong of a position as any president in American history. His victory over Barry Goldwater a few months prior was one of the most decisive in history, and its impact was far more than just a running up of the score against a flawed opponent. In the Senate, Democrats won 28 of the 35 seats up for election, expanding their majority to 68 seats. In the House, the party, which already held an 82-seat majority, gained 37 additional seats overall, even while facing losses in the South. Within the caucus, this amounted to a new class of 47 pro-Johnson liberal freshmen. Democrats holding congressional majorities was hardly new: with a few exceptions, they had done so constantly since 1931. But this time, the sheer size of their majorities, and the nature of the new additions to it, meant that the 89th congress was going to be quite different from the ones that had preceded it. Its new class of Northern liberals broke the grip that the de-facto “conservative coalition” of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans had held over Congress since the 1938 midterms. Priorities that had been held up for decades under multiple administrations could now be passed with ease. With this new, robust liberal majority in congress backing him, an electoral mandate from one of the largest landslides in American history, and widespread popularity among the public, Johnson pressed forward with his agenda in full force.
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