George Romney, Rebel with a Cause the Former Governor of Michigan Joined President Nixon's Cabinet in 1969 as Chief of Housing and Urban Development. He Pressed an Ambitious Plan to Fight Housing Discrimination How Nixon Thwarted Romney at Every Turn

By Hannah-Jones, Nikole | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 4, 2012 | Go to article overview

George Romney, Rebel with a Cause the Former Governor of Michigan Joined President Nixon's Cabinet in 1969 as Chief of Housing and Urban Development. He Pressed an Ambitious Plan to Fight Housing Discrimination How Nixon Thwarted Romney at Every Turn


Hannah-Jones, Nikole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The following is an excerpt from "Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law" published by ProPublica, the nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism. Read the complete series at propublica.org.

Not long after Congress passed a landmark law directing the federal government to dismantle segregation in the nation's housing, President Richard Nixon's housing chief began plotting a stealth campaign.

The plan, George Romney wrote in a confidential memo to aides, was to use his power as secretary of Housing and Urban Development to remake America's housing patterns, which he described as a "high- income white noose" around the black inner city.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed months earlier in the tumultuous aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, directed the government to "affirmatively further" fair housing. Romney believed those words gave him the authority to pressure predominantly white communities to build more affordable housing and end discriminatory zoning practices.

Romney ordered HUD officials to reject applications for water, sewer and highway projects from cities and states where local policies fostered segregated housing.

He dubbed his initiative "Open Communities" and did not clear it with the White House. As word spread that HUD was turning down grants, Nixon's supporters in the South and in white Northern suburbs took their complaints directly to the president.

Nixon intervened immediately.

"Stop this one," Nixon scrawled in a note on a memo written by John Ehrlichman, his domestic policy chief.

In a 1972 "eyes only" memo to Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, another aide, Nixon explained his position. "I am convinced that while legal segregation is totally wrong that forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong," he wrote.

The president understood the consequences: "I realize that this position will lead us to a situation in which blacks will continue to live for the most part in black neighborhoods and where there will be predominately black schools and predominately white schools."

Romney, the former governor of Michigan and father of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, held his ground. Notations and memos in his private papers show that he viewed the blighted black ghettos as a root cause of the inner-city riots of the 1960s.

"Equal opportunity for all Americans in education and housing is essential if we are going to keep our nation from being torn apart," he wrote in talking points he drew up for a meeting with the president.

Romney's stance made him a pariah within the administration. Nixon shut down the program, refused to meet with his housing secretary and finally drove him from the Cabinet.

How Nixon's vision for America came to pass

Over the next four decades, a ProPublica investigation shows, a succession of presidents -- Democrat and Republican alike -- followed Nixon's lead, declining to use the leverage of HUD's billions to fight segregation.

Their reluctance to enforce a law passed by both houses of Congress and repeatedly upheld by the courts reflects a larger political reality. Again and again, attempts to create integrated neighborhoods have foundered in the face of vehement opposition from homeowners.

"The lack of political courage around these issues is stunning," said Elizabeth Julian, a former senior HUD official. "The failures of fair housing are not just by HUD but by the country."

Nixon's vision for America largely came to pass and the costs have been steep. More than 20 years of research has implicated residential segregation in virtually every aspect of racial inequality, from higher unemployment rates for African-Americans, to poorer health care, to elevated infant mortality rates and, most of all, to inferior schools.

HUD's largest program of grants to states, cities and towns has delivered $137 billion to more than 1,200 communities since 1974. …

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