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Walter Mondale on 50 Years of the Fair Housing Act and the Problem With Purging a President’s Cabinet

6 minute read

It was 50 years ago Wednesday that, by some counts, a major era in American history came to an end. It was on April 11, 1968, that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act), which some experts consider to be the last major piece of legislation of the civil rights era.

The law, which banned formal discrimination in the rent and sale of housing, was co-sponsored by Edward Brooke, the Massachusetts Republican who was the first popularly elected African-American U.S. Senator, and Walter Mondale of Minnesota, who would go on to become Vice President of the United States under President Jimmy Carter and then the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee.

TIME spoke to Mondale on the anniversary of that epoch-defining law, asking him to reflect on the act’s controversial legacy and enforcement battles. Mondale also spoke of how not to enforce order in the Executive Branch, turnover in the Trump Administration, negotiations with North Korea and more.

How did the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., just the week before the law was signed, affect the timing of the Fair Housing Act’s passage?

When he was killed, they didn’t dare hold the bill back, and it passed right away. That’s the last way you want to pass a bill, but we did get the bill and some good has come out of the bill.

If you could go back in time, would you have written the bill any differently? If so, how?

We needed the support of [Everett] Dirksen, a Senator who was the Republican leader. He always insisted that these bills, before they go through, be given to him. He insisted that individuals’ sales of homes be removed from the jurisdiction of this bill. And so the bill basically deals with realtors and their functions and large significant construction of public housing.

So I would say that probably hurt some, but I don’t think it made that much difference. While we should deal with all forms of discrimination at all levels, I still think the bill that passed was a very important step forward. I hope that on this 50th anniversary we’ll recommit ourselves to supporting the thrust of the Fair Housing Act.

What do you think can be done to enforce it better?

There’s been a struggle to get the Fair Housing Act recognized as real law, and enforce it at the state and local level. I would say we haven’t done very well at it. I think it has made significant progress possible in America, but we’re not there yet. In its first years, organizations that were building housing that discriminated— where all whites [lived] and no blacks — would say to the judge, ‘Well, this law requires finding a realtor intended to discriminate.’ So there was the difficult, almost impossible task of trying to prove what was in a developer’s mind. Fortunately a few years ago in a fair housing Supreme Court case, Justice Kennedy said that the law clearly looks at impact, not intent. So if the impact of the action is to discriminate — to separate people based on race — then it comes within the terms of the law. Now we got Trump’s people, and I don’t think they want to deal with the law.

What do you think of the current U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Ben Carson?

I don’t think he’s strong in these issues at all. I think this is a tough time in American history if you believe in justice, openness and civil rights. Really tough.

It’s been almost 40 years since President Carter said the nation was facing a “crisis of confidence.” How do you think America’s confidence is doing now?

[The U.S. faces] a different kind of crisis. It’s very troubling to me because we have a President who is trying to divide us, one fight after another, who is cynical about what laws we obey and those which we don’t, and [is crafting] a kind of a spastic, uninformed foreign policy. If you surround yourself with good people, you can get through it.

The Trump Administration has seen a lot of turnover lately. President Carter famously purged his cabinet in ’79. What lessons can we learn from that?

Well, we did, and I didn’t like those purges much, as I think history will now show. Carter was a great president and I love him, but those purges gave the public the impression that we were falling apart, and we had to work doubly hard in the next years to demonstrate to the American people that we were on top of the White House. Some [of those cabinet secretaries] probably needed to go, but not all of them. Not in that way. I can say that directly these many years later. Maybe that’s a good story for all us to read together: how expensive those policies could be.

What are you following in the news?

The North Korean leader. He’s scary. He’s childish. He’s a dictator, a brutal dictator, so I worry about he’ll do, and we’ve got our President — intemperate, uninformed — and they’re going to meet. I hope something good comes out of it. I’d feel better if the president had surrounded himself with really good people. I keep reading Kim Jong Un is going to give up nuclear weapons. I am very skeptical. He said he’s going to negotiate, but I’m skeptical.

You served as Ambassador to Japan during the Clinton administration, so you’re very familiar with politics in that region. Do you think the summit with North Korea is a good idea?

We said we’re going to have it, and I think having done that we’ve got to ahead with it. North Korea lives amongst a lot of our friends and allies — Japan, South Korea — and we need to be aware of what they want and how they want it. One of the big problems over there is if you do get some kind of huge military war started, almost inevitably it will kill huge numbers of people in Japan and South Korea. This is not something you can limit just to North Korea.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com