Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act on 1968. Here are five facts about the final great legislative achievement of the civil rights era.
1. The original goal of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was to extend federal protection to civil rights workers, who were being intimidated, assaulted, and sometimes murdered, while organizing and registering black voters throughout the South. The bill was eventually expanded to address racial discrimination in housing, which is why it is most commonly known as the Fair Housing Act.
2. In the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., riots spread through 110 cities throughout the United States. Washington, D.C. was among the most affected cities, as the mayor imposed a curfew and President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched more than 13,000 federal troops to curtail the riots. At the time, the legislation was languishing in the House of Representatives’ Rules Committee. But as Marion Morris and Charles Mathias, Jr., note, “The Rules Committee, jolted by the repeated civil disturbances virtually outside its door, finally ended its hearings on April 8. The next day, it reported to the full House a rule for debate that agreed to the Senate amendments, including the compromise fair housing title, and prohibited any additional amendments.” The following day, April 10, the House debated for one hour the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and passed it 250–71. The very next day, President Johnson signed the bill into law.
3. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibits housing discrimination because of race, color, religion, familial status, or national origin (gender was added in 1974, and people with disabilities and families with children in 1988). The law makes it illegal to refuse to “sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because they belong to the prohibited category.” The Act also makes it unlawful to “deny any person access to or membership or participation in any multiple-listing service, real estate brokers' organization or other service, organization, or facility relating to the business of selling or renting dwellings, or to discriminate against him in the terms or conditions of such access, membership, or participation, on account of the prohibited category.”
4. The Act includes an exemption for religious organizations. According to the law, a religious organization, association, or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association, or society, is exempted from limiting the sale, rental or occupancy of dwellings which it owns or operates for other than a commercial purpose to persons of the same religion, or from giving preference to such persons, unless membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, or national origin.
5. The legislation also included the Anti-Riot Act. This provision is sometimes referred to as the “H. Rap Brown Law” since it was believed to be a response to H. Rap Brown, a member of the Black Panther Party who was arrested and charged with inciting a riot. The text of the law states:
Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including, but not limited to, the mail, telegraph, telephone, radio, or television, with intent – (A) to incite a riot; or (B) to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot; or (C) to commit any act of violence in furtherance of a riot; or (D) to aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in or carrying on a riot or committing any act of violence in furtherance of a riot . . . Shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.