Kim (Kendrick), thank you for your warm introduction. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome. Thanks to all of our speakers.
As you can imagine, the last few days have been very full. I want to thank all of you for your prayers and many acts of thoughtful kindness.
I also want to recognize the vital work of the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Kim Kendrick has provided strong leadership and commitment. The staff has produced a work product that meets the highest standards of public service.
As you know, I heard, and heeded, the call in the civil rights era. One point often made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others was that fair housing legislation was a necessary cornerstone for ending racial division. They said over and over again that America would not be just or equal until discrimination ended in housing.
You see, they had long memories. All, and I mean "all," of the giants of the civil rights movement knew housing discrimination firsthand. They had been turned away from neighborhoods because of their color. Doors had been slammed, conversations ended, opportunities denied because of unfair housing practices. They knew about the signs: "No Negroes need apply." And they all remembered an event that happened right here in Washington long before I was born. In 1921, some property over around 18th and New Hampshire in Northwest Washington was sold to a group of investors. As part of the contract, it was stipulated the land could never be sold to Black Americans. One of the buyers, Irene Corrigan, then sold a part of the land to Helen Curtis, who was Black. Other investors tried to void the contract because of the racial clause.
Well, the dispute went all the way through the District of Columbia courts to the Supreme Court, where the sale was voided and the clause forbidding sale to Black Americans was upheld. That was in 1926. And that scandalous case became the law of the land.
Well, the courts went back and forth on this, fighting over the constitutionality of racially restrictive covenants. You know how some things don't seem to get settled that way. The paramount need was for new housing legislation.
The debate over fair housing continued through the 1950s and 1960s. Congress stalled year after year, fearing the anger of the segregated south. And President Johnson was only able to gain passage of the Fair Housing Act because of the precious spilled blood of Dr. King, on that fateful day of April 4, 1968. As more than 40 major cities ignited in flames the night of his assassination, including Washington, D.C., President Johnson convinced Congress that further inaction could spark a second civil war. One week later, while 14th Street and H Street and other parts of Washington were still smoldering, the Fair Housing Act became law on April 11th.
President Johnson knew the power of that law. As he wrote in his autobiography, the law helped create a "new mood" that brought peace back to our cities. He said that it was an amazing realization to think that one law could do so much to end the racial tension in America.
That is because the law was more than words. It was the fulfillment of a constitutional promise. And that promise meant that all Americans, regardless of color or ethnicity or background or gender or disability, were to be treated justly, fairly, and equally in the rent or purchase of a home. Frankly, our Constitution would be a weaker document, perhaps a lie, if we did not guarantee the right to fair housing. And with the Fair Housing Act, we made this country nobler, strong, better, and more just.
So I pleased that we meet here today, forty years on, to reflect on this major milestone in American Constitutional Law. And to think about the courageous and visionary sacrifice of Dr. King, and the way we unified this country with the promise of fair housing.
Fair housing must never be seen as a static, finished product. We must always make it relevant and dynamic. In the last few days, I have been asked about our accomplishments here at HUD. I must confess I am very proud of our new Lending Division. I think this addition to the department makes our enforcement more effective and deterrence stronger. It offers a more secure guarantee of fair housing practices in America. And I believe it will be seen by future historians as one of the most important additions in the history of our department.
I want to thank all of you again for your dedication and service. On behalf of the President and the American people, thank you. I have always been pleased to work with each one of you as a colleague and a friend.