The Harbinger of Housing & Human Rights in the 21st Century

50 Voices for 50 Years Series

The Harbinger of Housing & Human Rights in the 21st Century

By Rhonda Y. Williams


Wherever I turn, housing is. Obvious, you might say. But, I am not talking simply about housing in the most apparent sense of literal wood, steel, or brick-and-mortar structures – but housing as a rousing harbinger of dire and distressing realities. Profit over people, profoundly persistent racial and economic inequalities, and a pervasive dearth of quality affordable shelter – a basic human right.

Whether I am prepping to teach my new course on “Race, Rights, and the ‘American Dream’” that features Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun; or, watching the documentary Mr. Dynamite! on James Brown who comments on vacant, boarded up, and condemned houses in black communities in 1960s’ New York, D.C., and Watts; or, driving through Cleveland and East Cleveland in Ohio, the Mississippi Delta, Baltimore in Maryland, or the “It City” of Nashville, Tennessee, where gentrification is aggressively transforming the racial and economic character of neighborhoods and creating increasingly prohibitively priced enclaves – I cannot help but see that the issue of affordable, sanitary, and decent housing in rural and urban communities is acute.

In cities, displacement, eviction, and relocation – the cornerstones of mid-20th century urban renewal (often described as “Negro Removal”), redevelopment, and highway policies – are not practices of the past. These practices are occurring in the 21st-century, even if they sometimes look different. For instance, in Atlanta, the Peoplestown neighborhood, described as that city’s “last working-class black neighborhood,” is being threatened by the municipal government’s use of eminent domain to take privately owned property for public use. A news article from the Guardian maintained that: “This process is replicated throughout the US. If successful, eminent domain could become the newest tool that local and state governments could use to accelerate the gentrification and displacement that is already impacting low-income Black and Brown communities.”[1]

Sadly, this is not surprising, even if quite disconcerting, particularly for those whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have described as the “children of light” – people who believe in freedom; contest racism, poverty, and materialism; and strive for equality, including in housing.[2]

It is absolutely crucial that people have places to live – that are not streets, homeless shelters, day-rental motels, or otherwise substandard, transient, or exorbitantly priced housing. Even with that vital physical need met, we know that location, or where people live, also often impacts their access to schools, jobs, economic stability, safety, and general well-being. The built environments that we construct, as well as how we invest in and develop their infrastructures, signal what and who we value, and what and who we do not.

History and contemporary conditions provide abundant evidence that what and who we value are indisputably influenced by race and socioeconomic class, both of which can affect not only whom we live next to and where geographically we live, but also how we live. In what kind of neighborhoods? (E.g., near highways, industrial plants, toxic dumps, or not?) With what resources and amenities? (E.g., near grocery stores with fresh, nutritious foods, healthy restaurants, parks and cultural institutions, or not?) And, with what kinds of opportunities and life chances.

Dr. King and others understood this. Indeed, a confidential first draft of a press release addressed to the President, Congress, and Supreme Court of the United States and dated February 6, 1968, speaks to Dr. King’s hopes for an “Economic and Social Bill of Rights” that included, “The right of a decent house and the free choice of neighborhood.”[3] In order to help achieve this, the Poor People’s Campaign called on the federal government to construct “500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were eliminated.”[4] In this way and others, King advocated and defended the human rights of the most marginalized and exploited people in the United States, no matter their race.

While the provision of housing has been included as part of the international right to an adequate standard of living under Article 25 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights since 1948 and under Article 11 of the U.N. General Assembly’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights since 1966, it is not, yet, a 21st century reality.[5] We still live in a society, country, and world that overwhelmingly protect, seemingly at all costs, capital and profit over human and planetary well-being.

This is not by happenstance, but by design.

Just some 50 years ago, in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King exhorted that the “children of light” must continue to proactively fight “structures of evil,” accompany their appeals with “constructive coercive power,” and engage in creative dissent.[6]

King prophetically warned (or simply realistically assessed) that “the children of darkness,” such as those seeking “to preserve segregation and tyranny,” were “always zealous and conscientious in using time for their evil purposes.” For example, he wrote: “If they want to defeat a fair housing bill, they don’t say to the public, ‘Be patient, wait on time, and our cause will win.’ Rather, they use time to spend big money, to disseminate half-truths, to confuse the popular mind.”[7]

The warnings and truths are many.

In Where Do We Go From Here, Dr. King also warned that, “Housing is too important to be left to private enterprise with only minor government effort to shape policy.”[8]

And, demonstrating a keen awareness that politicians and policymakers also often fall short of providing directly the scale of affordable and decent housing needed, King wrote: “Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy.”[9] This 20th-century fact – applicable to both political parties – still registers true in the 21st century.

Today, as we encounter the issue of housing at every turn, we serve as witnesses to, at minimum, the overwhelming evidence of enduring structural inequalities and, at most, state violence against non-rich and disproportionately non-white people.

The 2017 Republican Tax Bill is a noteworthy example. It is a reprehensible political act of aggravated economic theft. Even as programmatic funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development is being cut, low-income housing is continuously being demolished, and affordable housing for working-class and poor people is not being built in near enough quantity to meet demand, the 2017 Tax Bill promises to give already wealthy people, including real estate developers, like the 45th President, tax breaks.

Such examples of structural inequality and state violence – generally and specifically with regard to housing – are legion, and have even deeper roots than this most recent example of political and financial cruelty. For instance, let’s consider five major categories that can help unmask these as it relates to housing:

  • Access. Who has access to land, or (what kind of) shelter in urban and rural communities, or (what types of) resources to pay escalating rents, mortgages, and property taxes?
  • Policies. The history of housing policies and programs is mixed.[10] Think about the racially discriminatory policies supported by government, such as redlining, restrictive covenants, FHA and VA mortgage programs, and suburban housing that excluded black residents. Think about the demise of rent control, and tenant-landlord laws that overwhelmingly favor landlords. Think about the late 20th-century dismantling of direct government provision of low-income housing, while simultaneously advancing tax-payer funded, neoliberal, private market real estate developments that too often resulted in displacing, isolating, or bulldozing low-income and/or racially marginalized communities to construct stadiums, convention centers, highways, luxury housing, or new urban playgrounds for the wealthy or economically well-heeled.
  • Funding. Think about government cuts of already meagerly resourced social programs, and insufficient funding for quality public housing and affordable housing programs.
  • Government regulations. While government regulations exist, the lack of enforcement, accountability, and resources has resulted in failures to provide safe and healthy living conditions for some of the most vulnerable populations, including children, seniors, and veterans. Think about lead poisoning, vermin infestations, and toxic water.
  • Political and policy terminology. Often the terminology used can conceal actual intentional goals, discriminatory practices, and unintentional repercussions. For instance, think about how (a) the push for “redevelopment” can mask gentrification; (b) the implementation of “mixed income housing” has endangered public housing and/or ushered in luxury housing, ultimately making neighborhoods unaffordable for working-class and low-income people; and (c) “discourses of disaster,” such as claims of God bringing Hurricane Katrina to cleanse New Orleans of its public housing, which sat on desirable land.

These are just some of the stark truths that stare at us at every turn across this country, vanquish millions of people’s dreams, and create unduly harsh realities.

The catchphrase – “I have a dream” – is too often emptily proclaimed these days. Indeed, it has become a platitude. But, when Dr. King uttered it in 1963, it was not fanciful, apolitical reverie. It emerged as a response, a call, and oppositional vision to counter the racism and poverty buttressed by people in power through the institutions, businesses, bank accounts, and local, state, and federal governmental entities that they controlled.

Echoes of 1963 and 1967 in 2017.

Let me end with this remark and call to action by Paulette Coleman, who chairs the “Affordable Housing and Gentrification Task Force” for Nashville Organized for Action and Hope. At a recent meeting on “Land Justice and the Right to Housing,” hosted by the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, Coleman said the following – thereby providing critical perspective on the city spending $623 million to build a convention center while only earmarking $10 million annually for four years (even if up from $500,000) for its affordable housing trust fund: “I have a dream that we will think it is as popular to solve homelessness and the housing problem, as it is to bring in and serve tourists.”[11]

Imagine that! – and this, throughout society: A transformation of basic priorities that not only signals moral courage, but also results in an ethical recalibration of how public dollars are used, a la for efforts to advance human and planetary well-being, guided by everyday people of vision and conscience, who exercise constructive coercive power to make real housing as a human right.


About Rhonda Y. Williams

Rhonda Y. Williams is Professor of History and the inaugural John L. Seigenthaler Chair in American History at Vanderbilt University. The founder and inaugural director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University, Williams is the author of the award-winning The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles against Urban Inequality (2004) and Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (2015). She has published numerous articles and essays, including the forthcoming book chapter titled “Women, Gender, Race, and the Welfare State” in the Oxford Handbook for Women’s and Gender History. Williams is also the co-editor of the book series Justice, Power, and Politics at the University of North Carolina Press and is co-editor of Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement. She is a native of Baltimore.


[1] “Gentrification Comes to Atlanta’s Last Working-Class Black Neighborhood,” Atlantic Black Star, November 10, 2017, reprinted from the U.S. version of the Guardian. In 1965, part of the Peoplestown and Summerhill communities were bulldozed to build the $18 million dollar Atlanta Stadium, and majority low-income black communities in Atlanta again suffered similar fates with the construction of the Georgia Dome and Olympic Stadium in 1996. See, Winston A. Grady-Willis, Challenging U.S. Apartheid: Atlanta and Black Struggles for Human Rights, 1960-1977 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 115-116; Ronald H. Bayor, Race & the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 255-260.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967, 1994), 136.

[3] “Economic and Social Bill of Rights,” February 6, 1968, The King Center,

[4] New Poor People’s Campaign: A National Campaign for Moral Revival, “Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68,”

[5] For a resource, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, “What is the Human Right to Housing?”

[6] King, 136, 137, 142, respectively.

[7] Ibid., 136.

[8] Ibid., 214.

[9] Ibid., 171.

[10] See, for instance, Edward G. Goetz, New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, & Public Housing Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017); Rhonda Y. Williams, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[11] “Land Justice and the Right to Housing,” October 27, 2017. For more information on NOAH and its “Affordable Housing and Gentrification Task Force,” see,


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