The 1968 Fair Housing Act and the education of Congressman George H.W. Bush

The 1968 Fair Housing Act and the education of Congressman George H.W. Bush
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Politics often proves a Faustian bargain for the practitioner, when one’s ambition and conscience are put squarely at odds with each other, and one’s character is revealed in the balance between the two. 

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 — the Fair Housing Act — which was pushed through a formerly reluctant Congress a week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in honor of slain civil rights leader. President Lyndon Johnson seized the crisis in American neighborhoods to put the bill into law, seeing through the last of a triumvirate of civil rights bills that he signed during his five-year presidency along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which broke the back of Jim Crow, and the seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The milestone offers an example of moral courage not just of Martin Luther King, who waged the Civil Rights Movement including moving his family into to a $90 a month flat in a Chicago tenement slum to show the plight of the urban underclass; or of Lyndon Johnson, who used his political capital to advance the cause of civil rights; but also of George Herbert Walker Bush, a freshman congressman from Texas who supported the Fair Housing Act at great political risk in his conservative Southern state.  


Civil rights presented a paradox for Bush. In 1964, when he battled his Democratic challenger Ralph Yarborough in vain for Yarborough’s Texas seat in the U.S. Senate, Bush denounced his opponent’s support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, enormously unpopular in their home state. While he justified his resistance to the bill on Constitutional grounds as an infringement of state’s rights just as his party’s presidential nominee Barry Goldwater did, he also came to regret it, conceding later that he “took some far-right positions to get elected,” and hoped “not to do it again.”

A chance for atonement came four years later. By the time of King’s assassination, Bush was an ambitious, up-and-coming congressman representing Texas’ 7th District, a seat he had earned in 1966. During his first year in office, Bush visited American troops in Vietnam, paying his own way, in order to get a firsthand view of the war. There he saw “young black soldiers fighting for love of their country while affluent white kids ran away or got deferred.” It left a deep impression on him. Despite harboring the same constitutional issues, he believed that African-Americans, facing routine discrimination in the real estate market, should have the same rights to housing as whites; the Fair Housing Act, though likely to be difficult to enforce, was a way of making it a law.

On the day of King’s assassination, Bush expressed his views to Chase Untermeyer, a Harvard undergraduate who had volunteered in Bush’s congressional office and had earlier drafted a memo outlining the reasons Bush should support the stalled bill. “I’ll vote for the bill on final passage,” Bush assured Untermeyer in a handwritten letter. “Have misgivings — giant political misgivings — also I know it won’t solve much … but I’m for much of the bill and in my heart I know you’re right on the symbolism of open housing.” He continued, “The mail (on Fair Housing) is more on this than any subject since I’ve been in Congress — all against except 2 letters. 500 to 2 I’d guess. But this will be my character builder.” 

Soon after the bill’s signing, character intact, Bush returned to Houston where he met with a group of angry constituents in the gymnasium of Houston’s Memorial High School. “With one of the most conservative party voting records in the House, I am now accused of killing the Republican Party with this one vote,” he said before offering an impassioned moral defense of his position on housing rights. The crowd’s mood began to shift. When Bush finished, he received a standing ovation. George W. Bush wrote later that it was “by far the most meaningful public event” of his father’s early political career.

Today’s faint-hearted, hyper-partisan lawmakers, demonstrably short on moral courage, might heed the lesson. The ignominious approval rating of Congress stands at less than 20 percent, owing in large measure to the bulk of its members reflexively putting party over country and ideology over common sense, consensus-building and compromise.

In 1968, with the Vietnam War raging controversially, cities burning with racial tension, and generations clashing obstreperously, America was as intractably divided as the one in which we live today. Yet, Bush’s experience not only built his character in putting country’s needs above his own political interests but reflected his faith that fair-minded Americans would listen to reason — or at least respect that he had acted as a matter of conscience. The reception he received in a stuffy high school gymnasium suggested they did.

It’s a moment I’d like to believe we could replicate across the country today. We won’t know until more of our leaders try.

Mark K. Updegrove is president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and the author of “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush” (HarperCollins, 2017).