On April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the youngest members of the United States Senate took the floor of the chamber and declared, “The foremost proponent of a nonviolent confrontation between the races is dead. His generosity to the white man, his belief in the basic good will of all men, and his dramatic, nonviolent action enabled him to speak to both races,” declared Walter Mondale, a 40-year-old Democrat who had emerged as one of chamber’s most ardent advocates for civil right.
“In the days ahead, we must act to fulfill King’s dream,” said Mondale, who died Monday at age 93.
Mondale called that day for immediate congressional action on what would come to be referred to as the Fair Housing Act.
The previous year, when more prominent Democrats shied away from doing so, Mondale has joined the Senate’s sole Black member, Republican Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, to sponsor an amendment that sought to bar discrimination in the rental and sale of private housing. Both former attorneys general from Northern states that had been slow to address housing segregation, Mondale and Brooke knew that federal intervention was necessary to address persistent racial bias on the part of apartment building owners, home developers, and realtors. (Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison refers to Mondale as “the original people’s lawyer.”)
The young senators wanted to complete the work of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which lacked provisions for federal enforcement of a prohibition on housing discrimination. Yet their initiative had faced major hurdles in the Senate and House because of opposition from Southern segregationist Democrats and conservative Republicans who were empowered after the 1966 elections.
In those elections, conservative Republicans running in Northern states had stirred a white backlash vote against the progress that had been made by civil rights activists. Northern Republicans, and more than a few Democrats, had begun to echo the rhetoric of Southern Democratic defenders of housing segregation. “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has the right to do so,” declared former actor Ronald Reagan, who swept to victory in California’s 1966 gubernatorial race. The fear of backlash had already made many supposedly liberal Democrats cautious about taking on housing segregation. Mondale was one of the newest members of the Senate when President Lyndon Johnson asked him to sponsor the legislation in the Democratic-led Senate, yet, as a review of the struggle written years later observed, “housing was so toxic an issue, the president couldn’t find anyone else to lead the fight.”
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‘This Was Civil Rights Getting Personal’
Mondale understood what he and Brooke were up against. “A lot of civil rights was about making the South behave and taking the teeth from George Wallace,” explained Mondale, referencing the racist former governor of Alabama who in 1968 mounted a third-party presidential bid that won five states and inspired President Richard Nixon to adopt the racially charged “Southern strategy.”
“This,” said Mondale, “was civil rights getting personal.”
Mondale and Brooke persevered, organizing hearings and floor fights. They made progress in the Senate after a groundbreaking report from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—often referred to as “the Kerner Commission” because it was led by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—recommended “comprehensive and enforceable Federal open-housing law.” But progress in the House was blocked by segregationist Democrats who controlled key committees and the process of reconciling legislation.
Then King was killed.
Mondale believed that in a moment of national mourning and reflection and fear of urban unrest after the killing of the civil rights leader, it might be possible to speak to the consciences of members of Congress. He was right. Urged on by President Lyndon B. Johnson and the earnest son of a preacher from rural Minnesota, opposition began to crumble. House efforts to weaken the Senate legislation Mondale and Brooke had crafted were rejected—despite the objections of powerful House Rules Committee chair William Colmer, a Mississippi Democrat who said he was “violently opposed to this kind of legislation.” On April 10, the logjam broke and the House voted 250-172 for the bill that contained the Fair Housing Act. The next day, when President Johnson signed the measure, Walter Mondale was standing at his side, having declared, “This is a fitting response, although an inadequate one, to the tragic death of Dr. King. Even more, it is a demonstration that the democratic process can work.”
Senator Phil Hart, the Michigan Democrat who had been a leading congressional advocate for civil rights, wrote a note to Mondale on the day of the signing, that read, “You were magnificent—your energy, your counsel, your courage, and your leadership combined to move the Senate ‘to do right.’” Civil rights groups that had struggled to make segregation in Northern cities an issue hailed Mondale as an essential ally.
Yet Mondale was not finished. Recalling the report from the commission on civil disorders, the senator said, “[Approval of the Fair Housing Act] meets one of the steps called for by the Riot Commission—but one step is not enough… We must turn now to the other recommendations; before we rest easily we must be certain the millions of Negroes in this Nation are sharing the opportunity and economic progress that most whites know and enjoy.”
True to his word, Mondale remained an ardent advocate for civil rights over the next 53 years. He was at the forefront of the hard fights to implement additional Kerner Commission recommendations, to extend the Voting Rights Act (which he had voted for as a new senator in 1965), and to realize the promise of equal rights and equal protection under the law to all Americans. To a greater extent than any of his many missions, it was this commitment to civil rights that defined Mondale’s service as a multi-term senator, the vice president of the United States serving with President Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee for president in 1984, and an elder statesman of his own Democratic Party and his nation.
Through it all, he kept a tight focus on ending housing discrimination. Mondale had explained during a 1967 Senate debate,
In the last few weeks, there has been talk of causes, cures, and civil rights. The proposed remedies are many. Their efficacy is uncertain. The truth is, it seems to me, that there is no one solution, but there are many solutions. Our cities are beset by a multitude of ills, which can be cured only by a multitude of remedies. But every solution and every plan for the multiple evils in our cities and their ghettos is drastically and seriously affected by racial segregation in housing.
It was frustrating work. As ProPublica would note in its epic 2015 report, “Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law,” “presidents from both parties declined to enforce a law that stirred vehement opposition.”
The Civil Rights Law We Ignored
Mondale kept the pressure on, clashing with Republicans and Democrats—including, it should be noted, Democrats with whom he served and whom he campaigned to elect. There was some progress in the Carter years, but much backtracking under Reagan. Bill Clinton didn’t do enough and neither did the Bushes. President Obama was encouraging, Donald Trump disastrous. The failure to fully implement the Fair Housing Act angered the usually unflappable Mondale, who became increasingly outspoken on the issue in his last years. His 2018 opinion piece for The New York Times, which marked the 50th anniversary of the measure’s passage, referred to it as “The Civil Rights Law We Ignored.” When the Trump administration delayed implementation of initiatives launched under Obama, Mondale objected. Loudly. He wrote op-eds, did interviews, appeared at forums, and highlighted the work of housing activists by appearing in the short film Seven Days, which was produced by the National Fair Housing Alliance. The former vice president regularly expressed frustration with the fact that “the public servants tasked with implementing it have often forgotten—or refused to pursue—its ultimate goal of building an integrated society. The evil of residential segregation has waned at some times and in some places, but in others, like my home state, Minnesota, segregation has only grown.”
As he entered his 90s, Mondale grew more ardent in his advocacy, telling National Public Radio,
The view of how America speaks is reflected in our laws. And one of the laws is fair housing. It very clearly prohibits discrimination in the sale and rental of housing in America. It’s been a sad fact of American life that the practice in many communities has been quite the opposite. That’s why we passed the bill—to make a change. There’s a lot of bad consequences that flow from segregation. The kids don’t do as well. We live separately. We don’t learn about each other. We’re all Americans. And yet, we separate based on, basically, race. And I believe it’s got to stop.
When George Floyd was murdered last year by a Minneapolis police officer, Mondale embraced the protests against police violence and systemic racism. He celebrated the focus of demonstrators on the fact “that America remains scarred by unacceptable disparities.” He declared, “The battle for civil rights is a journey, not an end point. Each generation is tasked with the hard work of serving in the great fight for justice. Our neighbors who took to the streets over the past few weeks have joined a great cause. I thank them.”
After Mondale’s death was announced Monday, Representative Ilhan Omar, the Democrat who represents Minneapolis, reflected on the late-in-life words of a man she hailed as “a champion of civil rights—spearheading the Fair Housing Act of 1968.”
“We thank you, Mr. Vice President,” said Omar, “and promise to continue the fight for justice and civil rights.”