A Phil Hall Op-Ed: On Wednesday, the nation will observe the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For this column, I would like to call attention to another anniversary related to the late president.
On this date in 1962, Kennedy issued an executive order that prohibited federally funded housing agencies from discrimination based on race, color, creed or national origin. The executive order acknowledged that “discriminatory policies and practices” were in place and stated that such actions prevented Americans from pursuing “an alternative to substandard, unsafe, unsanitary, and overcrowded housing.”
The executive order was the second time in seven months that Kennedy called attention to discrimination in housing. On April 12, 1962, he issued a housing-related statement following hearings by the Commission on Civil Rights.
“Thirteen years ago, in passing the National Housing Act, Congress pledged itself to the goal of a decent home in a suitable living environment for all Americans,” said Kennedy’s statement. “It is clear now, as it was then, that this objective cannot be fulfilled as long as some Americans are denied equal access to the housing market because of their race or religion.”
But the problem was not unique to the nation’s minority populations, he added. Kennedy noted, “In our Nation’s Capital the problem is more than assuring equal opportunity to American citizens. When racial discrimination persists here, it sometimes constitutes a personal affront to the diplomats of sovereign nations and always reflects upon our ability as a nation to live up to our Constitutional ideals.”
In that last sentence, Kennedy referred to the growing number of African nations that achieved independence and were trying to set up embassies in Washington, D.C., along with residences for their representative staffs. Back in Washington of 1962, it didn’t matter to many property owners if the Black person seeking housing or office space was from another country – many African governments found it difficult to secure real estate based solely on race. Not surprisingly, this created a major embarrassment for the Kennedy administration in its efforts to present the nation as the leader of the free world – Soviet propaganda used the violence directed against activists in the civil rights movement as evidence of American hypocrisy of a nation that prided itself on freedom and liberty.
In many ways, Kennedy was his own worst enemy when it came to civil rights. Although he campaigned for president with a specific outreach to Black voters, once he was in the White House he mostly gave civil rights a low priority. The March on Washington that took place on Aug. 28, 1963, was a result of the impatience that many Americans had with Kennedy’s commitment to creating an agenda where civil rights clearly defined and vigorously enforced.
The lack of enforcement was the problem that made the executive order of Nov. 20, 1962, a well-intended but meaningless offering. State and local agencies were tasked with enforcing the executive order, and most refused to follow the president’s request. Federal enforcement was absent because of a powerful bloc of segregationist Southern Democrats in Congress who prevented meaningful civil rights legislation from being passed.
What would have occurred had Kennedy not been killed? Shortly before his death, Kennedy was moving to a more determined agenda for the advancing of civil rights. On June 11, 1963, he gave a televised speech to the nation on civil rights that laid the foundation for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Kennedy was careful not to call out the South as being the epicenter for discrimination – he had no leverage to get the Southern Democrats to accept his vision and he was not eager to call them out for shaming.
“This is not a sectional issue,” he said. “Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety.”
But as 1964 approached, Kennedy was concerned that he would lose re-election if Southern voters rejected his agenda. The fear of an election defeat is what brought Kennedy to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, but what was supposed to be a positive campaign appearance became a tragedy that continues to resonate six decades later. It would not be until after the assassination of Kennedy when his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, broke the power of the segregationist politicians by forcing through a series of laws starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and culminating with the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Phil Hall is editor of Weekly Real Estate News. He can be reached at [email protected].
Photo courtesy of the National Postal Museum