A Fair Housing Forefather

At great political cost, a soft-spoken California lawmaker laid the groundwork for the national case against discrimination.

January 17, 2018

Passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, 50 years ago this April, owes a debt of gratitude to familiar civil rights heroes like Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. But how many know of Berkeley, Calif., pharmacist William Byron Rumford Sr.? In 1948, Rumford became the first African-American from northern California elected to a state public office when he won a seat in the Assembly, the lower chamber of the California legislature.

After championing air pollution control measures and breakthrough employment discrimination protections, he introduced a housing bill in 1963 that would make it illegal to deny people the chance to buy or rent a home because of their race, among other classifications. The measure passed the Assembly 47–25, a feat largely attributable, according to Byron’s son Bill Rumford, to the elder Rumford’s “soft-spoken, nonantagonistic way” of talking to his legislative colleagues. Even after the bill was softened to exempt most single-family homes, it faced steeper opposition in the state senate. But it passed in both houses and was signed into law by Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown the same year.

At that point, a gauntlet was thrown by a variety of interests, including organized real estate, that sought not to amend it but instead to nullify it by inserting a statement about private property rights in the state constitution. “People’s thinking was a house is a man’s castle and no one should be able to tell him what he can do with it,” says Bill, 84, explaining the prevailing view held by the opposing side.

Proposition 14 read in part: Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.

The petition to put Proposition 14 on the ballot garnered more than a million signatures, double what was required. The Los Angeles Times endorsed the effort to make racial discrimination in housing legal again in California.

Though the ballot initiative passed by a wide margin, Rumford never lost hope. “He wasn’t bitter and took it in stride. He continued to meet with people to change minds,” he says. “Dad argued intelligently and was never aggressive or loud,” he says. “And he never backed down,” says Bill, a former Berkeley council member and retired police chief for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system who now lives in Canada.

In 1966, the California Supreme Court declared Proposition 14 unconstitutional, a decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. The stage was set for the federal protections offered in the Fair Housing Act a year later. It passed with the strong support of President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the measure into law a week after King’s assassination. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibited housing discrimination by race, color, creed, and national origin. In 1974, sex was added as a protected class; disability and familial status were added in 1988.

The federal law’s passage was a proud moment for Byron Rumford. At the end of his legislative career, which included a losing bid for the state senate in 1966, he was offered a job in Washington as assistant director of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission. In 1976, he returned to his pharmacy and private life in Berkeley. “Dad was a fighter to the day he died [in 1986],” adds Bill.

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