Overriding President Johnson’s Veto, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which is the nation’s first fair housing law. (Although the Due Process provision of the 5th Amendment, which was passed in 1789, has been used in more modern times to address housing discrimination perpetuated by the federal government, it was not initially used to afford people of color the right to housing free from discrimination. In fact, when the amendment was passed, slavery was an institution in America and the Constitution was not then meant to protect enslaved or Native populations or other people of color.) Passed during Reconstruction, the CRA of 1866 was designed to remove the vestiges of slavery and provide the first opportunity for Blacks to operate as full citizens with the ability to exercise their complete rights. Congress saw passage of this law as a necessary complement to the 13th Amendment. The bill was hotly debated with some members of Congress even questioning whether they had the authority to pass the law.
The CRA of 1866 did several things. First, it granted citizenship status to all persons born in the United States, including those formerly enslaved. Second, it held that all citizens have the same rights to ““purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property” along with other rights. Third, it made it illegal to deny a citizen these rights.
The law had lofty goals but contained a critical design flaw. In order to make the law live, people had to act as individual attorneys general meaning the onus for upholding and enforcing the law fell in the hands of a disenfranchised population. Former slaves and their descendants, who embarked on their new road to freedom with no reparations or compensation, had to first learn about this law, find an attorney to represent them in court, gather the funds to pay for legal representation and muster the courage to file a lawsuit against the person or entity discriminating against them in the face of extreme and many times violent opposition. For this and other reasons, this critically important law was seldom used from its passage in 1866 to the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.