Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that discrimination in the sale or rental of residential property violated U.S. law.

Summary of Event

As an official response to the movement for the rights of African Americans in the 1960’s as well as to an additional array of social protests, U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson initiated, and the U.S. Congress passed, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It soon became clear that subsequent civil rights legislation was politically essential. Accordingly, the Johnson administration directed its efforts toward passage of a fair housing bill in 1966. The heart of the bill, Title IV, sought to outlaw housing discrimination “by property owners, tract developers, real estate brokers, lending institutions and all others engaged in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.” Supreme Court, U.S.;racial discrimination Fair Housing Act (1968) Civil Rights Act of 1968 Housing laws Racial and ethnic discrimination;housing Civil rights;United States Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company (1968) [kw]Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination (June 17, 1968) [kw]Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination, Supreme (June 17, 1968) [kw]Housing Discrimination, Supreme Court Upholds Ban on (June 17, 1968) [kw]Discrimination, Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing (June 17, 1968) Supreme Court, U.S.;racial discrimination Fair Housing Act (1968) Civil Rights Act of 1968 Housing laws Racial and ethnic discrimination;housing Civil rights;United States Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company (1968) [g]North America;June 17, 1968: Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination[09820] [g]United States;June 17, 1968: Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination[09820] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 17, 1968: Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination[09820] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 17, 1968: Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination[09820] [c]Social issues and reform;June 17, 1968: Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination[09820] Stewart, Potter Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;civil rights legislation

Although superficially the bill appeared to be sweeping in scope, its enforcement provisions were feeble and procedures for redress by alleged victims of these widespread forms of discrimination were prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. The bill languished in Congress.

As a further step toward creation of an effective federal fair housing law, Congress in 1968 enacted another Civil Rights Act, the major provision of which, Title VIII, decreed a general ban on racial and religious discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. The ultimate effectiveness of Title VIII was dependent on judicial decisions, fresh legislation, and the outcomes of a volatile social situation across the nation.

Impetus behind fair housing legislation and the passage of a series of federal civil rights acts came in important ways from a number of African American and liberal campaigns, some of long duration. For example, trade unions, churches, and civil rights organizations had formed an alliance called the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing . It had been active since 1950 and already had by the mid-1960’s played an important role in securing enactment of open housing laws, municipal ordinances, and administrative regulations pertaining to housing in seventeen states and in sixty major cities.

Fair housing laws complicated what during the 1950’s and 1960’s had become a “white flight” from inner cities to suburbs that was imputed largely to racial prejudice. Governmental attempts to implement or enforce open housing policies often produced a so-called white backlash. Nowhere was this more manifest than in California. There, in 1964, voters approved Proposition 14 Proposition 14 in a state referendum.

Proposition 14 declared that the state could not interfere with anyone’s right to sell or rent property, or conversely the right not to sell or rent property. In effect, the proposition abrogated a number of California statutes, including the Rumford Fair Housing Act Rumford Fair Housing Act, California (1963) of 1963, which banned racial discrimination in housing. Proposition 14’s constitutionality was soon tested before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Reitman v. Mulkey (1967) Reitman v. Mulkey (1967) . The proposition was judged to be a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment because it would have authorized the state of California to engage in discrimination. Nevertheless, the proposition was indicative of widespread white reactions to one major thrust of the black and liberal drive toward winning expanded civil liberties. Opposition sentiments such as those embodied in Proposition 14 had been responsible for stalling Johnson’s fair housing bill in Congress for two years. Only the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., as the bill was being debated, led to its passage, transformed into the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Only weeks after President Johnson signed the act into law, the Supreme Court assumed its own initiative in hearing the case of Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company. Joseph Lee Jones Jones, Joseph Lee , an African American, alleged that the Alfred H. Mayer Company Alfred H. Mayer Company had refused, on racial grounds, to sell him a home in the suburban Paddock Woods community in St. Louis County, Missouri.

In considering the case, Justice Potter Stewart, who was to deliver the majority opinion, and his affirming colleagues premised their decision not on Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 but on an obscure law, section 1982, that had become part of the U.S. Code upon passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 Civil Rights Act of 1866 . Originally intended as an enforcement provision of the Thirteenth Amendment applicable to the District of Columbia, the law was nevertheless interpreted by the Court’s majority to bar “all racial discrimination, private as well as public, in the sale or rental of property.”

Justice Stewart made it clear that section 1982 was not a comprehensive open housing law and that it did not address discrimination based on religion or national origins. It likewise did not deal with the provision of services or facilities in connection with the sale or rental of dwellings, as might be performed by a realty company. Nor did it apply to advertising, financial arrangements, and brokerage services that might be involved in sales or rentals of dwellings. Stewart’s point in enumerating precisely what section 1982 covered was to emphasize the significance of the newly enacted Civil Rights Act, stressing the need for such legislation and underscoring the responsibilities of the federal government in enforcing the rights of petitioners such as Jones.

For the majority, Justice Stewart explained the resort to section 1982, which had been section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. In Hurd v. Hodge, Hurd v. Hodge (1948) decided by the Court in 1948, the identical law had been invoked to respond to a situation in which an African American had been denied the chance to buy the home of his choice “solely because of [his] race and color.” The source of Hurd’s injury was the action of whites who agreed to bar African Americans from a particular residential area. In that case, a federal court had aided in the enforcement of the white homeowners’ intentions. Thus the Hurd case did not, as the Jones case did, present the question of whether purely private discrimination, without the intervention of government, would violate section 1982.

In Stewart’s opinion, the Jones case represented the first chance for the Court squarely to confront the question of whether a wholly private conspiracy to deny the right to buy or rent property solely because of race or ethnicity was legally sustainable. The Court majority determined for Jones. It decided that historical evidence overwhelmingly supported the notion that the 1866 Civil Rights Act was intended to “secure for all men, whatever their race or color, . . . the great fundamental rights” to acquire property; to buy, sell, or rent as one chose; and to “break down all discrimination between black men and white men.”


Ten years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the decision in Jones, an exhaustive study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. (HUD) concluded that “a vast residue of discrimination” in the housing market remained. Black ghettos continued to exist within almost all major cities as well as in smaller communities.

Although the 1968 Civil Rights Act aimed to establish a fair housing market, in practice, as civil libertarians, black leaders, and legal scholars observed, it was more gesture than substance. The act provided no enforcement mechanisms, such as cease-and-desist orders aimed at violators. Charged with implementing the act, HUD, for example, lacked authority to ask for more than voluntary compliance when complaints came before it. It was incapable of imposing remedies.

Similarly, as historians noted, the Justice Department, Department of Justice, U.S. which did have authority to bring housing discrimination suits where patterns of discrimination existed, avoided tackling a number of exclusionary practices. The Justice Department, for example, made little effort to cope with “redlining,” which in the arena of housing discrimination took the form of mortgage lenders marking out areas, primarily on the basis of racial composition, in which they would not lend. Although the country’s financial regulatory bodies were legally required to act affirmatively to ensure fair housing, they were, many authorities concluded, derelict in issuing rules mandating nondiscrimination in mortgage lending and were slow to enforce the rules they did issue.

Notwithstanding these serious weaknesses, the act as implemented in the Jones decision did have positive effects. At the least, housing discrimination became less flagrant. A number of political scientists also found evidence in the 1970 U.S. census that there had been some progress. The census indicated a light but definite trend toward residential desegregation. Moreover, spurred by largely black riots in more than one hundred American cities during 1968, President Johnson presented Congress with the most extensive federal housing program in the nation’s history, an initiative calling for federal subsidization of 600,000 units annually for ten years.

The president also drew many of the same banking and construction interests that had previously abetted housing discrimination into profitable participation in his housing reform through his 1968 Housing Act’s subsidization of 1.7 million units over the following three years. Johnson’s successor, Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;housing and urban development , continued the program with the unprecedented federal construction of 1.3 million low-income housing units during the early 1970’s.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court hewed to the course in regard to housing discrimination that it had plotted in the Jones decision. The City of Akron, Ohio, for example, had adopted a fair housing ordinance in 1964. Its dissatisfied electorate thereafter amended the city charter to provide that any ordinance regulating the sale or rental of real property had to win the approval of a majority of voters before it could become effective. The amendment, in short, nullified the city’s fair housing law and reinstated customary patterns of housing discrimination.

The issue came to the Supreme Court in the case of Hunter v. Erickson Hunter v. Erickson (1969) in 1969. It afforded the liberal Court, which for fifteen years had been presided over by Chief Justice Earl Warren Warren, Earl , an opportunity to review favorably Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Speaking through Justice Byron White White, Byron , the Court acknowledged that it was confronted by a law that resorted to “an explicitly racial classification treating racial housing matters differently” from other legislative affairs. White declared that the charter provision was a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment and was therefore invalid.

Court decisions and legislative actions aside, in the early 1980’s the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division declared that housing discrimination remained “rampant.” Moreover, HUD estimated that there were two million instances of illegal race discrimination pertaining to housing annually and that it received only forty thousand complaints about them. In addition, the 1968 Civil Rights Act covered only 80 percent of the nation’s housing units. Congress seemed willing to leave matters as they were.

Legislation and Supreme Court decisions tried to establish a healthier social environment within which beneficial change could occur, but only changes in traditional attitudes over time, it seemed, could alter the facts of daily life. Evidence for such a change in attitudes was reflected in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as studies demonstrated that the level of discrimination in housing dropped considerably, though not to the point of elimination. Supreme Court, U.S.;racial discrimination Fair Housing Act (1968) Civil Rights Act of 1968 Housing laws Racial and ethnic discrimination;housing Civil rights;United States Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company (1968)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blasi, Vincent, ed. The Burger Court: The Counter-Revolution That Wasn’t. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Chapter 6 deals with race discrimination and was written by a Stanford University law professor and former attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Paul Brest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Archibald. The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. A brilliant, incisive set of lecture-essays by a distinguished legal scholar. Of particular interest here is chapter 3, but the whole of this brief book deserves reading. Superb for reflections on the Warren Court and civil rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goering, John. Housing Desegregation and Federal Policy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. An easily read scholarly study. Considers all major federal fair housing programs and major judicial decisions. Raises questions about limits of federal approaches to desegregation and alternatives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Hugh Davis. “The Surprising Career of Federal Fair Housing Law.” Journal of Policy History 12, no. 2 (2000): 215-232. A study of the legislative and enforcement history of federal fair housing laws, beginning in the 1960’s and including the period of the 1968 Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones. Recommended reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matusow, Allen J. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960’s. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. A masterful and incisive critical survey of the subject. Chapter 7 on civil rights, including fair housing, is especially pertinent here. Worth a full reading. One of the finest general studies of the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Metcalf, George R. Fair Housing Comes of Age. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. A twenty-year retrospective evaluation of fair housing and the racial discrimination that has plagued its progress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Bernard, ed. Civil Rights. 2 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1970. A superb combination of commentary, documents, and testimony. The Jones decision is included in full.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Squires, Gregory D., and Charis E. Kubrin. Privileged Places: Race, Residence, and the Structure of Opportunity. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2006. Examines the continuing problem of housing discrimination in the United States. Chapters include “Race and Place,” “Accessing Traditionally Inaccessible Neighborhoods,” “Predatory Lending,” “Racial Profiling, Insurance Style,” and “Race, Place, and the Politics of Privilege.” Highly recommended reading. Includes maps.

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Categories: History