A sign announced “This tract is exclusive and restricted” at a housing development limited to whites in Los Angeles in 1950. (USC Digital Library)

The landmark career of William Rumford, who pushed for racial equity in California

He was a hero — the Jackie Robinson of Black politics.”

William Byron Rumford, the first Black person elected to the state Legislature from Northern California, was born in February 1908. A pharmacist by training, Rumford became a pivotal figure in the fight to extend California’s prosperity to people of all races. Housing inequity had been cemented over decades through racial covenants and loan practices that channeled credit to white households at the expense of nonwhites. Rumford’s landmark fair housing act in 1963 made it illegal to refuse to sell or rent real estate to anyone on the basis of race, creed, or national origin.

Ronald Reagan adressed a crowd on the campaign trail in Lakewood in 1966.
Ray Graham/L.A. Times/UCLA Library

It was ferociously contested. Opponents warned of a descent into socialism. On the campaign trail for governor, Ronald Reagan vowed to wipe the legislation off the books, declaring that true freedom includes the freedom to discriminate against Blacks.

A white backlash led to the passage of Proposition 14, which nullified the Rumford Act and played a part in stoking the Watts riots in 1965. The effect was to enshrine housing discrimination in the state Constitution — but it didn’t last. The California Supreme Court overturned Proposition 14 in 1966. Two years later, the federal government followed suit with the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Assemblyman William Byron Rumford in an undated photo.
Oakland Public Library

A soft-spoken and unassuming man, Rumford was said to have won over his colleagues through patient dialogue. He boxed for a number of years as a young man, experience that he said served him in politics. “I don’t give up easily,” he once said. “I hope I never run over people … but I don’t like people pushing me around when I’m right.”

The N.Y. Times wrote an obituary for Rumford in 2019 as part of its “Overlooked No More” project.

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