More to Do? Legacy of the Rumford Fair Housing Act in California

Gavel with open book and scales on table

Gavel with open book and scales on table

By Julie McCaffrey

SACRAMENTO, CA – This September marks the 60th anniversary of the passage of the Rumford Fair Housing Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that banned homeowners and landlords from racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing, according to George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times.

The Rumford Act became the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which is in use today. And while housing discrimination is illegal, some legislators believe not enough is being done.

California State Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles) maintains, “California proclaims to be the vanguard of progressive values and social justice, yet we have not invested in our civil rights infrastructure. We have a long way to go when it comes to racial justice in the workforce and in housing,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

And, while this may seem expected by the blue state of California, it produced one of the biggest legislative battles the state has seen, the Times noted.

“The mood in California was as anti-equality — by legislative edict and local ordinances — as you can imagine,” said former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a legendary Black politician, recalling the mid-1960s, the Times remembers. 

While California did not have Jim Crow-esque segregation, housing segregation was increasingly common and expected, with white inhabitants barring people of color from living in their neighborhoods, the newspaper added, explaining what around 17.6 percent of inhabitants, the approximate non-white population of California in the 1960s, faced with significant difficulties finding housing.

Assemblyman Byron Rumford—one of the first Black legislators and for whom the bill is named—carried the bill.

What followed was a weeks-long sit-in by civil rights activists, sitting, sleeping, and chanting in the halls of the California legislature. Actors such as Marlon Brando and Paul Newman visited the demonstrators to show their support and publicize the cause. The activists hoped to put pressure on the legislators to pass the Act—and it worked, but not before a hard battle between its supporters and opponents, wrote the Times.

First, an opponent of the bill, Senate leader Hugh Burns, tried to block a vote on the bill. Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh swiftly retaliated, and threatened to kill all Senate bills pending unless Burns freed the measure, added the Times, noting this led to a compromise being passed in 1963 at the last minute possible, seven minutes before the midnight adjournment.

Finally, the Act was made into law and housing discrimination was illegal. But, said the Times, Unruh made a prediction that would later come true—he warned his colleagues that the constituency may not accept the Act’s passing. Almost immediately after, the California Real Estate Association launched a campaign that sought to repeal the Rumford Act, titled Proposition 14.

Democratic Gov. Pat Brown called Proposition 14 supporters “shock troops of bigotry.” His opposition to Prop. 14 eventually led to his downfall, as he lost the election by a landslide to Ronald Reagan, who promised to overturn the Rumford Act, said the Madera Tribune.

Reagan stated that “all persons in a free society have a basic and cherished right to do as they please with their property,” and believed prejudice cannot be prevented by law, added the Tribune in 1966. Despite his vows, once in office Reagan did little to try to overturn the Act.

Proposition 14 was eventually passed by Californians in the 1964 election, but was later declared unconstitutional by both the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

About The Author

Julie is a third year at UC Davis majoring in Communications and Psychology with a minor in Philosophy. She hopes to advocate for women's reproductive rights and make the justice system fairer for sexual assault survivors.

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