The following is an excerpt from "Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law" published by ProPublica, the nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism. Read the complete series at propublica.org.
Not long after Congress passed a landmark law directing the federal government to dismantle segregation in the nation's housing, President Richard Nixon's housing chief began plotting a stealth campaign.
The plan, George Romney wrote in a confidential memo to aides, was to use his power as secretary of Housing and Urban Development to remake America's housing patterns, which he described as a "high-income white noose'' around the black inner city.
The 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed months earlier in the tumultuous aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, directed the government to "affirmatively further'' fair housing. Romney believed those words gave him the authority to pressure predominantly white communities to build more affordable housing and end discriminatory zoning practices.
Romney ordered HUD officials to reject applications for water, sewer and highway projects from cities and states where local policies fostered segregated housing.
He dubbed his initiative "Open Communities" and did not clear it with the White House. As word spread that HUD was turning down grants, Nixon's supporters in the South and in white Northern suburbs took their complaints directly to the president.
Nixon intervened immediately.
"Stop this one," Nixon scrawled in a note on a memo written by John Ehrlichman, his domestic policy chief.
In a 1972 "eyes only'' memo to Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, another aide, Nixon explained his position. "I am convinced that while legal segregation is totally wrong that forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong," he wrote.
The president understood the consequences: "I realize that this position will lead us to a situation in which blacks will continue to live for the most part in black neighborhoods and where there will be predominately black schools and predominately white schools."
Romney, the former governor of Michigan and father of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, held his ground. Notations and memos in his private papers show that he viewed the blighted black ghettos as a root cause of the inner-city riots of the 1960s.
"Equal opportunity for all Americans in education and housing is essential if we are going to keep our nation from being torn apart,'' he wrote in talking points he drew up for a meeting with the president.
Romney's stance made him a pariah within the administration. Nixon shut down the program, refused to meet with his housing secretary and finally drove him from the Cabinet.
Over the next four decades, a ProPublica investigation shows, a succession of presidents -- Democrat and Republican alike -- followed Nixon's lead, declining to use the leverage of HUD's billions to fight segregation.
Their reluctance to enforce a law passed by both houses of Congress and repeatedly upheld by the courts reflects a larger political reality. Again and again, attempts to create integrated neighborhoods have foundered in the face of vehement opposition from homeowners.
"The lack of political courage around these issues is stunning,'' said Elizabeth Julian, a former senior HUD official. "The failures of fair housing are not just by HUD but by the country.''
Nixon's vision for America largely came to pass and the costs have been steep. More than 20 years of research has implicated residential segregation in virtually every aspect of racial inequality, from higher unemployment rates for African-Americans, to poorer health care, to elevated infant mortality rates and, most of all, to inferior schools.
HUD's largest program of grants to states, cities and towns has delivered $137 billion to more than 1,200 communities since 1974. To receive the money, localities are supposed to identify obstacles to fair housing, keep records of their efforts to overcome them, and certify that they do not discriminate.
ProPublica could find only two occasions since Romney's tenure in which the department withheld money from communities for violating the Fair Housing Act. In several instances, records show, HUD has sent grants to communities even after they've been found by courts to have promoted segregated housing or been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice. New Orleans, for example, has continued to receive grants after the Justice Department sued it for violating that Fair Housing Act by blocking a low-income housing project in a wealthy historic neighborhood.
ProPublica submitted 41 questions to HUD about its failure to use its authority to promote integrated housing. It issued a statement which did not address that issue but said the agency has worked hard to enforce provisions of the law that bar discrimination against individuals.
Scholars have traced the history of housing segregation in several notable books and articles. ProPublica has obtained new documents and interviewed key figures in the four-decade battle over the Fair Housing Act.
Present and former officials in HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity said their attempts to enforce the 1968 law were met with indifference or opposition from the agency's senior officials.
"People say integration has failed," said Ms. Julian, an assistant secretary for fair housing during the Clinton administration. "It hasn't failed because it's never been tried."The Obama administration -- prodded by private lawsuits -- has done somewhat more than its predecessors. It has taken the unprecedented step of withholding money from Joliet, Ill., and Westchester, N.Y., for not meeting civil rights obligations.
But advocates say the administration has fallen far short of its promises to reform this broken system. After nearly four years, federal housing officials have yet to issue regulations that would precisely define what communities need to do to "affirmatively further'' fair housing.
Myron Orfield, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and one of the nation's leading experts on segregation, said when the federal government abandoned Romney's efforts it turned away from a critical opportunity to reshape American life.
"Segregation would have been cut by half and possibly eliminated,'' Mr. Orfield said. "The country would have been very different."
In the first decades of the 20th century, African-Americans began to resist the brutally oppressive post-Civil War South the only way they could -- with their feet. Sneaking onto trains, they traded the tobacco and cotton fields of steamy Southern towns for the cold winters and cramped tenements of the North.
When the Great Migration began in 1910, just 10 percent of black Americans lived outside the South. Six decades later, nearly half of the country's 22.5 million African-Americans called other states home. In all, 6 million African Americans left the South, a flow of humanity that redrew the nation's racial map.
The migrants sought jobs in booming Northern cities such as New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In the early years, they moved into white neighborhoods, rarely living in places that were more than 30 percent black.
It didn't last.
Cities and towns began adopting zoning codes that designated neighborhoods as all-white and all-black. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down those laws as unconstitutional, real estate agents wrote "codes of ethics" that included bans on selling homes to African-Americans outside of black areas. In some cities, white residents responded to the arrival of black families with riots, home bombings and cross burnings. They formed associations dedicated to blocking even a single black family from moving in.
Still, African-Americans kept moving north. By 1930, the black population in Northern cities had grown by 40 percent as another 1 million left the South.
Around this time the federal government began promoting the racial division of Northern cities, primarily through New Deal loan programs that introduced redlining, denying loans in black neighborhoods. The Federal Housing Administration went on to adopt similar practices, encouraging white flight. Over time, federal policies accelerated segregation by building highways and mass transit systems that made it possible for millions of white Americans to work in the inner city yet live in the suburbs.
It took just 60 years to divide communities in nearly every metropolitan area along racial lines. Northern cities had become the most segregated in the country.
After Martin Luther King's assassination in April 1968, President Johnson urged Congress to pass the long-delayed Fair Housing Act as a tribute to the slain leader. He had already announced that he would not be running for re-election. Hubert Humphrey, his vice president, lost a closely contested election to Richard Nixon, whose winning coalition was built around former Southern Democrats and white Northerners.
Nixon named an avowed opponent of housing segregation as his first secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
George Romney, who unsuccessfully ran against Nixon early in the presidential campaign, had championed housing integration as governor in his home state of Michigan. The 1967 Detroit riots, which destroyed 2,000 buildings and took 43 lives, profoundly affected Romney. He enacted a statewide fair housing law. He called for an end to local zoning that encouraged segregation and for the creation of low-cost housing throughout metropolitan Detroit and the state. "Force alone will not eliminate riots," Romney wrote in letters responding to angry citizens. "We must eliminate the problems from which they stem."
Romney knew his ideas went against the grain of the Nixon administration, but his papers, housed at the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, show that he viewed open housing as a moral obligation regardless of political cost.
So Romney and his staff crafted a secret agenda to use HUD's powers under the 1968 act. Romney staff members debated how much to let the White House, and the public, know about their efforts.
Soon after, Romney launched his Open Communities program. Separately, he ordered his staff to draft legislation that allowed the government to override local zoning that kept out federally subsidized housing.
"Romney recognized these places got a lot of stuff from the federal government," said Orfield, the University of Minnesota law professor. "And Romney said if the federal government is going to build you a new freeway and sewer systems -- the government was footing about 80 percent of the cost -- you are not going to build communities at the end of those freeway and sewer systems for only affluent white people."
Romney's campaign achieved some initial successes. HUD terminated grants to the Boston, Baltimore and Toledo metro areas after they rejected low-income housing slated for white neighborhoods, and won concessions.
The program could not be kept secret for long. On June 22, 1970, Nixon's most trusted domestic adviser, Ehrlichman, sent Romney a note.
"The White House is receiving the strongest sort of representations regarding the proposed 'open communities' policy," he wrote. "This proposal has not had the usual policy review. ... May I ask the present status?"
Romney sent back a less-than-truthful reply. The department had not created a new policy, he wrote. It was merely reviewing "a range of alternatives."
A month later, the new HUD chief decided to test the program in territory he knew well -- the 99 percent-white Detroit suburb of Warren. The once-sleepy town had undergone a population boom as whites fled Detroit in the '60s. Its residents were openly hostile to the idea of blacks moving into their town.
Romney told Warren that HUD would withhold federal dollars if the city didn't agree to build affordable housing. Warren's mayor pleaded for leniency. Romney stood firm, saying: "Black people have just as much right to equal opportunities as we."
Local officials in Warren complained in a letter to the White House about HUD's "integrationist misfits." The president responded immediately, denying the White House had a plan to tie HUD dollars to integration. He ordered Romney to release the money.
The confrontation over Warren marked a critical moment in the history of the Fair Housing Act. For the first time enforcement of the law collided with the political realities of a president thinking about re-election. Romney continued to press ahead with his Open Communities program. By the fall of 1970, Nixon had lost patience with his HUD secretary. A memo from Ehrlichman outlining options for Nixon's "Post-Southern strategy" for the 1972 campaign called HUD's effort to integrate the suburbs "a serious Romney problem which we will apparently have as long as he is here.''
"This is no approved program,'' Ehrlichman wrote. "But he keeps loudly talking about it in spite of our efforts to shut him up."
Not long after, Nixon asked Romney to leave the Cabinet and become U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
Romney turned down the job. In a Nov. 16, 1970, letter, he said he understood that the president believed they were "on a collision course because of a difference in ideology with respect to the racial aspects of HUD's programs." He asked for a meeting "to discuss my views personally with you."
At the end of the letter, Romney again made his argument for integration. "It is becoming increasingly clear that the lower, middle income and the poor, white, black and brown family, cannot continue to be isolated in the deteriorating core cities without broad scale revolution." He underlined the words.
Nixon froze Romney out, refusing to meet with the HUD secretary.
As the Nixon White House geared up for the 1972 re-election campaign, Romney gave up. "Developments in recent months and days have convinced me that you are no longer interested in my counsel and advice before making policy and operating decisions directly affecting the activities of the Department I head," Romney wrote to Nixon in August 1972.
Though Romney's formal resignation letter in November 1972 made no reference to the civil rights battle that had been his downfall, insiders may well have detected an ironic turn of phrase in the words he chose.
"I want to thank you for the privilege of serving the nation under your great leadership," Romney wrote. "The experience has been a rewarding and invaluable one that, among other things, has deepened my understanding of our country's political processes."
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a reporter for ProPublica. She previously wrote for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. (Nikole.Hannah-Jones@propublica.org).