ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
On April 11, 1968, a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, President Lyndon Johnson signed one of the era's last major pieces of civil rights legislation. At the heart of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was the Fair Housing Act. It prohibits discrimination in the rental and sale of housing. During the signing ceremony, Johnson called the new law one of the promises of a century.
(Soundbite of archived speech)
President LYNDON JOHNSON: It proclaims that fair housing for all, all human beings who live in this country, is now a part of the American way of life.
SIEGEL: As part of NPR's occasional series Echoes of 1968, NPR's Cheryl Corley traveled to the west side of Chicago. There, she reports on 40 years of age change brought on by the Fair Housing Act and the obstacles that remain to fulfilling its promise.
CHERYL CORLEY: There are no markers to signify the importance of Hamlin Street in the fight for fair housing. But this is where Martin Luther King lived for a few months in 1966. The building I'm standing in front of now bears the same address as the $90-a-month apartment King used to highlight the poor living conditions in a segregated ghetto. It was King's base, as he and others planned rallies and protests and marches into Chicago neighborhoods demanding fair housing.
(Soundbite of archived speech)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Co-founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): We sent negroes in large numbers to the real estate offices in Gage Park. Every time negroes went in, the real estate agents said, oh, I'm sorry we don't have anything listed. Now, you can find something, somewhere else and it was always back in the ghetto, but they didn't have anything.
And then soon after that we send some of our fine, white staff members into those same real estate offices, and the minute the white persons got in, they open the book, oh yes, well, we have several things. Now, what exactly do you want?
CORLEY: At the time, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s push for open housing in Chicago was not considered a success. But his assassination spurred passage of the long-stalled Fair Housing Act. The new law helped dismantle government practices and legal barriers which had segregated neighborhoods.
Ori Penik(ph), a former executive director of a fair housing group Chicago Activist founded in the aftermath of the King visit, says thanks in part to programs that helped minorities move into mostly white neighborhoods and lawsuits that challenged discriminatory practices, some neighborhoods are more diverse.
Ms. ORI PENIK (Former Executive Director, Chicago Activist): Of the 77 communities that we have in Chicago, there is not one that does not have someone of color in it. That's a major deal in a city that was infamously labeled and most racially segregated, although we're still hyper-segregated. Don't get me wrong with, but we're less hyper-segregated than we were, say, in the '80s.
CORLEY: The original goal of the Fair Housing Act was to create a level playing field where blacks, latinos, Asians, and others, could go anywhere in the country and buy a home or rent an apartment if they had the means. When it was amended, the law also brought change beyond racial definitions. Prohibiting discrimination based on a person's sex, familial status, or disability.
Kim Kendrick, the assistant secretary for fair housing with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says last year there were more than 10,000 formal complaints filed with HUD.
Ms. KIM KENDRICK (Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity, HUD): In 2007, we had about 43 percent of those complaints were filed by persons with disabilities. That means the persons with disabilities have found their voice and found a way to make people notice them and let them know that you cannot discriminate against us.
CORLEY: And Kendrick says even though there are fewer complaints about race, some parts of society have adapted to skirt the law.
Ms. KENDRICK: I don't want you to think that I'm saying to you that discrimination based on race has gone away in 2006 and 2007. The landlords are more sophisticated than that now.
CORLEY: The National Fair Housing Alliance says sometimes it's not even necessary for anyone to see prospective homeowners or tenants for discrimination to occur. Instead, they are so called linguistic profiling, where people try to determine an applicant's race by their voice on the phone or even e-mail where an address or the spelling of a name might provide some hints.
Ferreting out discrimination, though, was only one aspect of the Fair Housing Act, promoting integration is another. A handful of communities are considered models.
Ms. SHERILYN REED(ph) (Resident, Oak Park, Illinois): Now, when we first came here we put a wall from…
CORLEY: Sherilyn Reed shows off the front room of her home in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb just west of Chicago's nearly all-black Austin neighborhood. Reed moved to this house in 1968 with her now-deceased husband and their three young children.
Ms. S. REED: We were the first black family to buy through a local lending institution.
CORLEY: A few other black families who had moved to Oak Park before the Reeds did so surreptitiously with white families fronting as the buyers. One of those homes was firebombed. After holding lengthy and angry debates, the village passed its own open housing ordinance shortly after President Johnson signed the national law.
For years, Reed served as Oak Park's director of community relations. She and other village officials would visit residents to quiet fears and rumors about the neighborhood changing.
Ms. S. REED: I could say to them, I lived in four houses. I've never moved in on top of anybody. Somebody may had to move out in order for me to move in. So, if you don't want your community to change from white to black, don't move out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. S. REED: You know, stay where you are. You know the community. You know, it's only a few moves that there might be a change, and that change doesn't have to be bad.
CORLEY: Oak Park has been able to resist the block-by-block resegregation that occurred on Chicago's Westside. About two-thirds of the 60,000 plus people who live here are white, less than a quarter are black, there's a sizable Asian population and Oak Park is a magnet for interracial couples. Some areas are more diverse than others, but the village encourages people to make moves that promote integration, and it's run public relation campaigns touting the town's multicultural image.
Ms. DOROTHY REED (President, NAACP): Oak Park has an interesting housing stock because Frank Lloyd Wright lived here.
CORLEY: Dorothy Reed is Sherilyn Reed's daughter. She is the president of the local NAACP and a realtor. During a drive through the street she grew up on, Reed points out the village's eclectic mix of bungalows, old Victorians, framed stucco homes, and lots of apartment and condo buildings. The typical home here cost about $326,000.
Back in her office, Reed says she is well aware of the dubious role realtors, lenders, and insurance agents that played in segregating neighborhoods. But here in Oak Park she says the village has been able to maintain its multiracial character even if potential homeowners come with their own criteria to stay out of certain neighborhoods.
Ms. D. REED: We were talking earlier about the cold words, if you will, no east to this, no west of that, around or in a good school system. As a real estate agent, I have an obligation to show them every property that meets their needs. If they select not to go to that property, that's their choice. I haven't done that. But if I say, oh, I'm only going to show you these houses, you don't need to look at these then I'm steering them and directing them and helping them and limiting their decision process because I'm not exposing them to all the properties.
CORLEY: In many ways, Oak Park and a handful of other communities around the country are considered anomalies, integrated towns and still highly segregated regions. Fair housing activists say it's not that the Fair Housing Act has failed, but that it's not been sufficient, and racial diversity must be planned and carried out as carefully as segregation has been.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News.