Published in The American Genius
The legislation was going nowhere. At least not in a form that would have done much good.
Following months of debate amid nationwide unrest, the version of H.R. 2516 that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives was diluted and largely impotent.
Then it waited – idle – in the Senate for the remainder of 1967.
When the upper chamber eventually (reluctantly) took up the bill, the junior Senator from Massachusetts took the floor. Edward Brooke then told a story that's as powerful today as it was 54 years ago.
Enlisting in the United States Army immediately after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Edward Brooke was assigned to the segregated 366th Infantry Regiment and soon entered into European Theater from the unit's outpost in Italy. There, Brooke's fluency in Italian was a tremendous asset to Allied war efforts, his covert actions in Axis territory earning a Bronze Star Medal for service in a combat zone.
He returned home a decorated veteran, a member of the group that would reverently be known as America's "Greatest Generation" for its defeat of fascism and its persistence through the Great Depression.
Yet Brooke, who would become the first Black American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, found himself denied the ability to compete for certain homes in certain neighborhoods because of the color of his skin.
"In the hierarchy of American values, there can be no higher standard than equal justice for each individual," Brooke said in the winter of 1968. "By that standard, who could question the right of every American to compete on equal terms for adequate housing for his family?"
For Brooke, with his new wife and a blossoming family, the experience was devastating. But it was far from unique. Even for those returning as heroes from Europe and the Pacific.
While the GI bill promised to repay American soldiers for their immense sacrifices in World War II, many of those benefits were in truth only promised to White veterans.
"Here we were… fighting for freedom overseas when we did not have freedom at home. We had hoped and prayed that when the war was over… things would [be] different," he said years later. "But when we came back, it was just business as usual."
The encounter prompted Brooke to enroll in law school at Boston University, setting him on the path to public service.
With redlining pervasive in post-World War II America, historian Ira Katznelson notes that non-whites purchased "fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI bill" in suburban New York City. Across 1947 Mississippi, just two of more than 3,100 VA-guaranteed home loans went to Black borrowers.
Something, it was clear in Brooke's mind, had to change.
"Fair housing [was always] a problem for me," Brooke recounted in 2007. "I lived in a time when you had redlining, where Blacks couldn't get mortgages in certain areas… And I just believed that something had to be done dramatically, but effectively, to bring about fair housing in this country. So, I introduced legislation."
Today, Brooke and Walter Mondale are recognized as the fathers of fair housing.
Together, these Senators from opposing parties and divergent backgrounds drafted S. 1358, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Its language would eventually be adopted into the same H.R. 2516, legislation known officially as the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This initial bill had been watered down so much through House debate that its only real, remaining purpose prior to the adoption of S. 1358 was to protect civil rights workers.
As I outlined back in February, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. catalyzed Congress into final, definitive action on housing, applying the public pressure and motivation lawmakers needed to move the Fair Housing Act from proposal to policy.
But it was Senator Brooke's powerful experience as a Black veteran denied the inalienable right to property that helped birth the landmark law we now celebrate each April.
This fight for equal rights and equal access throughout society persists in various forms, overt and obscure. In employment and education and health care. And, still, in housing.
Today, Realtors® and real estate agents play a unique role in the realization of the Fair Housing Act. The 1.5 million members of the National Association of Realtors® are on the front lines with consumers — both buyers and sellers — and see firsthand where discrimination is experienced.
Back in 2019, NAR began developing an implicit bias training video to share with our members and other industry professionals. This resource drew upon the latest scientific research to illustrate how our brains' automatic, instant association of stereotypes causes us to treat different groups of people unfairly. The video has today been viewed by tens of thousands of Realtors®.
Building off its success, NAR earlier this month unveiled a new implicit bias classroom training program, which is eligible for state-level continuing education credit. (To maintain real estate licensure, agents and brokers are required by their respective state's real estate commission to regularly complete a pre-determined amount of continuing education hours.)
The training explains how our unconscious brains immediately categorize people in the human effort to process information more quickly.
It then offers participants various tactics to help break down stereotypical thinking, ultimately allowing each client and consumer to be treated with an equal level of concern and respect.
NAR invited many of the most experienced trainers already engaged with At Home with Diversity® to complete the intensive, two-day certification process requisite to leading Realtors® through the program.
Ultimately, our hope is that this effort will raise the bar on the overall quality and expectations of fair housing training in this country.
But making housing fair in America requires so much more than a focus on implicit bias, a fact NAR recognizes well.
In his memoirs, Senator Brooke wrote that "the issue of open housing went beyond politics and asked white America to cast off prejudice… and to embrace justice for all." He knew that justice, true justice, was not possible without true fair housing in America.
Edward Brooke laid his life on the line to preserve the principles of freedom, democracy, and justice. His experiences — his story — remain a critical component of our broader, national story. And it's a constant, explicit example of everything our modern-day pursuit of fair housing embodies.