Ghettos, Segregation, & Poverty in the 1960s
 — Bruce Hartford

In a sense, we are using the word "slum" interchangeably with what the sociologists refer to as a "ghetto." On the one hand, slums include blighted, rat infested housing conditions. On the other hand, they include all those crippling conditions which victimize the ghetto Negro: his unemployment and underemployment, his stifling educational circumstances, his sense of rejection, his sense of aloneness, and his unconscious self-hatred. The purpose of the slum is to confine those who have no power and perpetuate their powerlessness. In the slum, the Negro is forced to pay more for less, and the general economy of the slum is constantly drained without being replenished. In short, the slum is an invisible wall which restricts the mobility of persons because of the color of their skin. The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn. — Martin Luther King.[2]

In Europe, the term "ghetto" referred to Jewish enclaves surrounded by stone walls separating them from the dominant population of Christians. Mandated by the church and enforced by the state, Jews were forced to live in these teeming, overcrowded districts where they had few (if any) legal rights and were subject to discrimination, persecution, special "Jew" taxes, and at times mob violence.

In the United States, intellectuals and activists working in the urban North began using "ghetto" to draw parallels between the coercion, repression, and poverty of Jewish ghettos in Europe and impoverished, overcrowded, Black, Latino, and Asian slums enclosed by invisible walls of economic and political power. This article uses the word "ghetto" as it was used back in the 1960s rather than the racially-tinged pejorative it sometimes carries today (2015).

As the 1960s evolved, Latino activists began using the Spanish term "barrio" to refer to their neighborhoods while Asians continued to favor the traditional "town" nomenclature — "Chinatown," "Manilatown," etc. But regardless of terminology, the economic and political realities of segregated housing in the 1960s were essentially similar for each group. (And to some extent the issues discussed below still apply today.)

Urban Ghettos

"The land of rats and roaches where a nickel costs a dime." — Langston Hughes

In the 1950s and '60s, Black sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and agricultural laborers in the South — the poorest of the poor — were being replaced by machines and forced off the land by plantation owners determined to reduce Afro-American populations before they achieved voting majorities in Black Belt counties. Freedom Movement efforts such as the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, Poor Peoples Corporations, and Co-Ops had little long-term success, and new streams of unskilled, rural poor flowed into the urban slums of the North and West.

When Black and Latino immigrants arrived in the urban North and West, they found a different kind of segregation — residential segregation. Unlike southern segregation which was written into law, northern residential segregation was mandated and enforced by economic power and civic policy — but it was no less inflexible. Regardless of income, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians could only live in designated, inner-city districts — Harlem, Southside, Watts, East L.A, Chinatown, Japantown, and so on.

Landlords would only rent apartments to tenants of the designated race, banks wouldn't give mortgages to buyers of the wrong color, realtors steered their clients to the "correct" neighborhoods. In some instances, real estate ads and classified listings of available apartments explicitly stated racial restrictions. The deeds to many homes, apartment buildings, and developments contained restrictive covenants specifying who they could be sold or rented to. While most of these restrictions referred only to race, some also barred Jews, for example:

"Said Property shall not be sold, conveyed, granted or leased, in whole or in part, to any Hebrew person or family, or any person or family not of the white race, nor shall any Hebrew person, or other person not of the white race, be permitted to occupy any portion of said property or any building thereon, except a domestic servant actually employed by the owner of said property."

Some white suburbs were known as "sundown towns" where people of color had to be gone by sundown or face arrest on trumped-up charges, or vigilante violence, or both. In many cases, official signs were posted to make this policy explicit. In Hawthorne CA, for example, a sign read: "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne." But most of the signs simply said: "Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark".

Within the ghetto, economic power was primarily held by businesses and institutions owned by non-resident whites who financially profited from segregated housing. They enriched themselves, and by so doing placed added burdens — often insurmountable ones — on people trying climb out poverty.

Landlords. Ghetto boundaries were tightly constricted, severely limiting available housing. With crowded neighborhoods bursting at the seams, "slumlords" had the whip-hand and could force tenants to pay high rents for small, badly maintained, ill-heated apartments. For tenants, it was either rats, roaches, and peeling paint — or no place at all. The result was that on average ghetto residents paid a higher portion of their smaller incomes for housing than did whites. This "color tax" made it all the harder for them to lift themselves out of poverty.

We were living in a slum apartment [in the Lawndale district of Chicago's Westside ghetto] ... We were paying $94 [equal to $675/month in 2014] for four rundown, shabby rooms, and we would go out on our open housing marches on Gage Park and other places and we discovered that whites with five sanitary, nice, new rooms, apartments with five rooms, were paying only $78 a month [equal to $570]. We were paying 20 percent tax. — Martin Luther King.[3]

In some areas, landlords and tenement investors who refused to maintain their buildings were given special tax breaks allowing them to lower their property's assessed value as it deteriorated over time. So not only did they avoid the cost of repairs, but their taxes steadily declined year after year. (Of course, the rents they charged stayed the same or rose.)

Banks & insurance companies. The few banks and insurance companies that served inner-city, nonwhite communities had captive customer-bases. With limited options, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians seeking mortgages to buy ghetto homes or borrow to build a business were forced to accept substandard loans with excessive interest rates, onerous fees, and harsh penalties. Whites who had access to competitive housing and banking markets paid lower interest and smaller fees. The same high-price low-quality pattern held true for ghetto insurance policies. These discriminatory practices were known as "redlining" and they were highly profitable. Particularly when banks could later force foreclosure and acquire years of equity for pennies on the dollar from owners struggling to meet high interest payments.

Realtors. As new immigrants swelled populations to the bursting point, ghettos had to expand — a process controlled by Realtor associations for great profit. "Block busting" was the slang term for converting a block from white to nonwhite, and the Realtors choose which white blocks to "bust" — and when.

A block was busted when a home was sold, or an apartment rented, to someone who was not white. Landlords then quickly replaced their white tenants with nonwhites paying higher rents. Real estate agents went door-to-door, spreading race-fear among white home-owners. They bought white homes for less than market value and immediately sold them at inflated prices to people of color seeking to escape the ghetto. The profits were enormous, and so were the racial animosities that block-busting inevitably generated. (See Los Angeles — Busting My Block for a narrative description of this process.)

Developers. Wealthy developers building large suburban housing tracts were able to finance their projects with low-interest government loans from the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), but only on condition that the housing be racially segregated as required by FHA policies. After World War II, subdivisions like Levittown NY begin popping up all over. These mass-built, cheaply-constructed "tract homes" were sold at great profit to whites moving out of the city. In the greater Philadelphia area, for example, 120,000 new homes were added to the housing stock between 1946 and 1953. But only 347 were open to Blacks (.002 of the total) — all the rest were "white-only."

Political power over the ghettos in the mid-1960s was primarily controlled by non-resident whites — in some cases with the cooperation of a few local Black or Latino office-holders. At that time, white voters outnumbered nonwhites in every major American city except for Washington DC. Municipal governments were dominated by white office-holders whose primary interest in their "colored" population was to keep them quite, docile, and out of sight. In this they were ably aided by ghetto ward bosses (both white and nonwhite) who used booze, favors, cold cash, phony counts, and rigged ballots to reliably deliver bloc votes for City Hall incumbents who were quite satisfied with the self-serving status quo regardless of what they proclaimed during campaign season.

The result was civic policies that reinforced the ghetto system. Building codes were not enforced against inner-city landlords, nor were health and safety laws. When residents asked local authorities to take action about inadequate heat, rats & roaches, broken stairs, leaking pipes, peeling paint, uncollected garbage, public drunkenness, street prostitution, and other problems, their complaints were quietly filed and forgotten.

Police. To law-enforcement and the powers-that-were, confining racial minorities to sharply-defined ghettos made them easier to police and control. Many urban police departments adopted, "To Protect and Serve," as their motto. But it was made clear to inner-city residents that that slogan didn't apply to them. The cops — all but a few of whom were white — functioned like an occupying army assigned to protect white citizens and white property from dark-skinned threats.

Education. Ghetto children were sent to neighborhood schools. Most northern school boards in the mid-1960s were either entirely white, or mostly so, and they drew district lines that conformed to changing racial boundaries, creating essentially all-white and all-nonwhite schools. This was called "defacto" segregation to distinguish it from the "dejure" dual-school systems mandated by law in the South. School resources and the quality of education were sharply different, white schools were the "good" schools, ghetto schools were the "bad" ones that didn't provide adequate preparation for college or decent-paying jobs. As the impoverished ghettos expanded, tax-revenues fell, and overall school funding declined. White parents could flee to the segregated suburbs rather than risk their child's future in an inner-city school. Nonwhite ghetto residents had no such option.

Jobs. As white employers left the city for white-only suburbs, they often relocated their businesses, taking with them decent-paying jobs. Many ghetto residents could not afford a car, but the new suburbs were planned on an assumption that everyone drove everywhere. So there was little public transit for workers forced to remain in the inner-city. Without adequate transportation, they could not keep, or obtain, now distant jobs. In car-oriented Los Angeles, for example, it took Black maids living in the South Central ghetto an hour and a half and three bus transfers to reach the Beverly Hills mansions where they worked long hours for little pay.

Crime. Regardless of race, poverty breeds crime and the poor are usually the victims. During the 1960s, theft, extortion, drugs, prostitution, gambling, and graft were big business in the ghetto. Pervasive crime was yet another barrier that the poor had to overcome. It's hard to get ahead when meager savings are stolen, or have to be used to repair damaged property or pay the medical costs of violent injury. The police were more concerned with maintaining social control than protecting the poor, and some cops were in the pay of criminal gangs who also had cozy relations with local politicians and ward bosses whose main interest was in collecting their bribes, payoffs, and campaign contributions. Residents who complained too often to elected officials were pointed out to the cops as "troublemakers."

These and other factors combined to create ghetto slums that imprisoned Black, Latino, and Asian populations. In the mid-1960s, for example, some 40% of Harlem apartments were officially classed as either "dilapidated" or "uninhabitable." A baby born in Harlem was twice as likely to die in infancy as one born elsewhere in the city. Of the Harlem kids who entered high school, two-thirds never graduated. A survey of Harlem residents reported that poor housing, drugs & crime, and lack of police protection were among the top complaints. More than 80% said they would leave Harlem if they could find housing somewhere else, only 6% said they want their children to grow up there.

The Negro, unlike the white urban resident, finds himself and his heirs even unto the 3rd and 4th generation, locked in. He is confined by the conspiratorial noose pulled tight by the racist attitudes and actions of selfish profiteering real estate interests and white residents with their restrictive covenants and (un)gentlemen(ly) agreements, abetted by the prejudicial practices of mortgage-money lending institutions. ... [Negroes] end up saying unconsciously in the words of Paul Lawrence Dunbar:
A crust of bread and a corner
to sleep in
A minute to smile and an hour
to weep in
A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,
and never a laugh
that the mourns come double,
and this is life.
 — Martin Luther King.[2]

White Neighborhoods and Sundown Suburbs

The racial ghettos of urban America were big — in some cases, huge. And so homogeneous that for many residents the only whites they ever encountered were cops, teachers, welfare case workers, the occasional repairman, and the even rarer government official or politician on campaign. On the flip side, whites living in all-white areas in the 1960s almost never interacted with people of color other than those in menial service positions. For the majority of northern whites, concentrating people of color into separate neighborhoods seemed natural, appropriate, and desirable. And for some whites, their hostility to what they referred to as "forced integration" was intense and visceral.

Nationwide, demographic tides were shifting in the 1960s. Where once rural whites and European newcomers flowed into the cities for jobs and education, culture and excitement, by the '60s they and their descendants were moving out to the suburbs. Replacing them in their former apartments and homes were incoming waves of rural poor, and nonwhite immigrants from Latin America and Asia.

Some whites moved because detached homes on individual lots were larger and more comfortable than urban apartments, and suburban living seemed cleaner and quieter, with fresh air and handy parks. Others moved so that their children could go to "better" (whiter) schools supported by stronger tax bases. For large segments of the white population in the 1950s and 60s, inter-racial dating, sex, and marriage were still socially taboo and shamefully stigmatized as "miscegenation." Many parents preferred white neighborhoods and schools where there was little chance of daughters and sons socializing with boys and girls of other races.

Among those on the move were the whites whose blocks had been "busted" to accommodate expanding ghettos. As they saw it, they had been forced out of homes and neighborhoods they had long lived in — for generations in some cases — often at significant financial loss. But they didn't blame the landlords, realtors, and banks who controlled and profited from the process, instead they blamed "pushy" Blacks (or Latinos). Once they resettled in new all-white neighborhoods or sundown suburbs, they were grimly determined to keep nonwhites out at all costs.

During the '50s and '60s, efforts to end housing segregation in the North sparked intense resistance from significant segments of the white population (including some who had supported campaigns in the South for school integration, lunch-counter desegregation, and nonwhite voting rights). Many local governments supported and reinforced pro-segregation attitudes by enacting or strengthening legal barriers that defended "property-rights," "community-standards," and so-called rights of "free association."

When intrepid nonwhites did manage to buy or rent a home in an all-white community they were frequently met with harassment and mob-violence. In 1957, for example, open-housing advocates helped Bill Myers — a Black electrical engineer — defy race restrictions by buying a home in a segregated Levittown outside of Philadelphia. He and his family were forced to endure week after week of crowds protesting their presence, hate-graffiti sprayed on their house, and constant broken windows. Their insurance was canceled and the sympathetic white owner who had sold his property to them was fired from his job. With the support and assistance of liberal, anti-racist whites from inside and outside of Levittown they held on, but other people of color were understandably reluctant to follow in their footsteps. Throughout the '50s and '60s, from Massachusetts to California, similar patterns of mob-action and harassment frequently occurred against nonwhites who moved into restricted suburbs.

Levittown whites opposed to integration did not hesitate to justify their actions:

Myers is, "probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2000 [equal to $17,000 in 2014] drop off the value of my house," explained one white neighbor. "We feel we have the moral right to protect our property values and rear our children in the best possible surroundings," said someone else. Another complained about, "...these colored kids and men, killing, raping & robbing, and making eyes and passes at us white women." And a local political leader blamed the Myers family for, "The violence and disruption in a once peaceful suburban community." He urged them to, "go back where you came from."[1]

Conflicting Strategies

CORE, NAACP, SCLC, and the Urban League all had various programs in the 1960s aimed at ending job discrimination and inner-city unemployment. But open-housing advocates believed that such programs alone, while necessary, were not sufficient and that they would not significantly ameliorate pervasive poverty. As they saw it, so long as segregation confined people of color in overcrowded, high-rent enclaves with inferior, segregated schools and inadequate access to public transportation and services, efforts like War on Poverty grants, job-training programs, and campaigns against racist hiring practices could not achieve long-term results because ghetto restrictions, ghetto economics, and ghetto disempowerment would continue to perpetuate a race-based system of exploitation that imprisoned and impoverished generation after generation.

By the mid-1960s, however, many other civil rights activists and community leaders disagreed. They considered open housing campaigns to be at best irrelevant, and at worst counterproductive. Without new laws outlawing racial discrimination in housing, it was impossible to force landlords to rent apartments to Blacks or Latinos in all-white buildings, and attempting to do so had proven a futile waste of effort. Similarly, exerting enormous effort against adamant white opposition to force token integration of a few all-white suburbs by nonwhite home-buyers had done little to end redlining practices, or make any significant change in the broad patterns of segregated housing. Meanwhile, poor residents of the inner-city continued to endure the myriad ills of ghetto housing, isolation, and disempowerment.

Many activists argued that the Movement should focus its scarce time, energy, and resources on organizing tenant unions to fight slumlords with rent strikes, community-wide commercial boycotts against redlining and other discriminatory practices, and mass protests demanding that local governments enforce building codes and health & safety laws. In their view, developing Black and Latino-owned businesses, co-ops, self-sufficiency programs, and political power would do more to alleviate the pervasive poverty of the many than winning token open housing for the very few.

Speaking to CORE's national convention in 1965, New York CORE leader Clarence Funnyé summed up the two opposing strategies:

It is my hope that this convention will grapple with what seems to me to be a basic conflict of aims. There are those among us who feel strongly that we must now turn our energies toward rebuilding and strengthening the ghetto to enhance Black political power. There are those, on the other hand, who feel that our major thrust must be toward eliminating the ghetto, with all its attendant ills of slums, inadequate schools, high crime rates, poor police protection, inadequate services, and a feeling of hopelessness on the part of the inhabitants. — Clarence Funnyé, CORE. [1]

CORE, which for years had led direct action efforts against segregated housing throughout the North, chose to turn away from integration and focus instead on issues of poverty and political power within the ghetto. Funnyé left CORE and became a leader of the National Committee Against Housing Discrimination.

As was often the case when committed Movement activists disagreed on strategic direction, both those who wanted to fight housing segregation and those who advocated building ghetto political power were eventually proved correct. Like the SNCC debate in 1961 over direct action or voter registration, both approaches were necessary, and neither were achievable without the other. But actually breaking down the invisible walls of money and politics that confined the ghetto, forcing slumlords to lower rents and improve their buildings, and developing significant community political power all turned out to be far more difficult than winning voting rights for nonwhite people in the South. In one form or another, those issues and battles still continue to this day.

The urban ghettos in the 1960s also had a small but influential number of nonwhite politicians and business owners who had considerable self-interest at stake. By that time, a few Blacks and Latinos were being elected to office from inner-city districts where nonwhites now had voting majorities. And with those offices came at least some of the power and patronage that incumbents traditionally bestowed on supporters — government jobs and business contracts, regulatory influence and favors, zoning adjustments, and so on. With the ghettos growing and whites fleeing, nonwhite politicians and their backers could envision a day when they might dominate big city governments, even become mayors — but not if their constituents scattered themselves into surrounding suburbs. And while whites still economically dominated, some nonwhites were able to establish businesses serving nonwhite customer bases, and they too were uneasy about dispersing their customers, as were some ministers with large and flourishing congregations drawn from the tightly-packed ghetto neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the violent urban uprisings of the mid-1960s and the anti-white rhetoric of angry militants were terrifying many whites, particularly those who had no personal contact or interaction with people of other races. Alarmist and sensationalized news stories incited and exacerbated these racial fears, prompting new waves of white-flight to all-white suburbs, "safe" urban neighborhoods, and gated communities fortified with private security against dark menaces.

North and South, conservative political leaders were adopting "white backlash" electoral strategies of fomenting racial fear among whites. Political, economic, and social gains by Blacks and Latinos were portrayed as the illegitimate grabbing of special benefits and privileges at the expense of innocent whites who were (they claimed) the "real victims." They told white voters that laws, court rulings, public policies, and negotiated agreements prohibiting racial segregation or requiring integration somehow denied them their "right of free association." By "free association" they meant the "right" to exclude Blacks and other racial minorities from their communities. By 1966, this "white backlash" had become a potent force on the political right, one that mobilized all its power to defeat any challenge to northern housing segregation.

It was in this 1966 political context that Dr. King and SCLC confronted slumlords and marched for open housing in Chicago, and the NAACP tried to win national Fair Housing legislation in the hoped-for Civil Rights Act of 1966. Both efforts were defeated by backlash politics, government repression, and racist violence. (A weakened version of the Fair Housing Act was finally passed in 1968 after more than 100 American ghettos exploded in flames when Dr. King was assassinated.)

Copyright © Bruce Hartford

For background and more information see:

Excerpts From "The Crises in America's Cities", Martin Luther King.
Cambridge MD & the "White Backlash", CRMVets History & Timeline
Impact of Northern Urban Rebellions on Southern Freedom Movement, CRMVets History & Timeline
Chicago Freedom Movement, Slumlords, & Open Housing
Civil Rights Act of 1966 Killed by Senate Filibuster

Quotation Sources:

1. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, Thomas Sugrue.
2. "Address to Chicago Freedom Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King. March 12, 1966.
3. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Clayborne Carson (editor).

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