TEXT ON SCREEN: 1966
NARRATION: 1966. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders took their fight for equality north, to one of the most segregated cities in America: Chicago.
ARCHIVAL (CHICAGO FILM ARCHIVES, 1966): PROTESTORS: Take a bath the next time before you come here!
NARRATION: On top of their agenda: improving housing conditions, and ending housing discrimination.
ARCHIVAL (E-FOOTAGE, 9-3-66): MAN: Back to the jungle you guys! Back to the jungle! Go! WOMAN: They’re all black bastards! MAN: Don’t ever come back!
ARCHIVAL (BUDGET FILMS, 8-6-66): MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I have seen here in Chicago.
NARRATION: Many black residents were concentrated in the worst neighborhoods, with the poorest in vast government housing projects.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-31-70):
NEWS REPORT: The world of the people who live here bears very little resemblance to the American Dream.
NARRATION: Valencia Morris and her three daughters would eventually live in one of them.
VALENCIA MORRIS: There was garbage, junk on the outside of the buildings. Even in kindergarten, first grade, my daughters would get beat up on the way home from school. They were becoming, not violent, but on the defense.
C. ZAWADI MORRIS: She said, “Listen, either you’re going to learn how to fight back or you’re going to keep getting beat up. I can’t help you.” My mom was starting to see how the environment was beginning to change us. And so she was desperately looking to leave.
NARRATION: A group of public housing residents who wanted to live in better neighborhoods with more resources turned to Alex Polikoff, a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU.
ALEX POLIKOFF (ATTORNEY): You had virtually no options. We’d had some 18,000 public housing apartments built, almost exclusively in black neighborhoods. There was pervasive housing discrimination in the private market. Realtors would not show you white neighborhoods, if you got to a white neighborhood a landlord wouldn’t rent to you.
NARRATION: Polikoff filed one of the country’s first public housing segregation lawsuits, named Gautreaux.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-20-76): NEWS REPORT: The suit asked the court to order that public housing be built in white neighborhoods like this one.
ALEX POLIKOFF: I was pessimistic about the chances. Everybody knew why the projects were being built in the black neighborhoods, but very few people would say so. This was the way things were.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 10-1-71): NEWS REPORT: The mere suggestion that residents of these buildings be dispersed has been bitterly resisted by white neighborhoods.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-11-71): WHITE RESIDENT: Well, it’s going to bring down the value of everybody’s property. REPORTER: Why do you think that? RESIDENT: Bec - well, I don’t know why. Just, um, you see those other projects they have and they don’t take care of them.
NARRATION: But the lawsuit came at a time when the problems – and inequality – in the inner cities were becoming national priorities. And then…
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-4-68): WALTER CRONKITE: Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee.
ARCHIVAL (PRODUCER’S LIBRARY): NEWS REPORT: One hundred cities rage with riot. Thirty-nine die. Twenty thousand are arrested.
NARRATION: Seven days after King’s assassination, the government banned racial discrimination in housing. And when the Supreme Court ruled in Polikoff’s favor eight years later, the government would have to start providing public housing in white Chicago neighborhoods, including the suburbs.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-20-76): NEWS REPORT: The effect of the case will be far reaching, even beyond busing. Perhaps even changing the structure of America as we know it.
NARRATION: One part of the solution was an experiment in integration that had never been tried before – giving vouchers to a few thousand families from the Chicago projects and helping them rent apartments in the suburbs.
ALEX POLIKOFF: You had to use your voucher to move to a predominately white, middle-class community. And such communities have good schools. They have low crime. They’re close to job opportunities. This was a hopeful moment because a new doorway had opened up in terms of how to deal with segregated neighborhoods.
NARRATION: The Morrises were one of the first families to move.
VALENCIA MORRIS: I immediately called and asked them to put my name on the list. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, how quiet it was. When I saw the apartments it was unbelievable, because I had never seen a dishwasher before.
NARRATION: But life as one of the town’s only Black families wasn’t always easy.
VALENCIA MORRIS: I would go out in the morning to get in my car and there would be rotten eggs thrown on the windshield and all over the car.
C. ZAWADI MORRIS: My mom’s advice was you have to win. Period. “Keep your head up. Keep your mouth shut. And win.”
JAMILLAH GILBERT: My mom would insist that we had the top grades. Whatever we did, she would talk to us as if we were going to succeed.
KIAH MORRIS: There was so much that we were able to do. Our high school had a full sized professional stage. We had a music program. We had all of the state-of-the-art sports equipment you could ever want.
NARRATION: By the time Kiah Morris was a teenager in the 1990s, the media was taking notice of how new neighborhoods could help families succeed – and the Morrises were profiled on national television.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 60 MINUTES, 12-19-93): MORLEY SAFER: Are you glad your mother did what your mother did? MORRIS GIRLS: Oh yes.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-4-93): PETER JENNINGS: On the American Agenda tonight, the power of new surroundings.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-4-93): NEWS REPORT: The Gautreaux program was designed to promote racial integration, but it is also breaking the welfare cycle.
ALEX POLIKOFF: The social science research was startling. Mothers got jobs. Children who went to school went on to college.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-31-95): HENRY CISNEROS: The residents deserve decent housing.
NARRATION: Henry Cisneros, the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, hoped programs like Gautreaux could replace government-owned housing across the country, especially the high-rise projects.
HENRY CISNEROS (FORMER SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT): It was as segregated as you could define the word segregation in America, dilapidated buildings, unlivable places. Some of them were national stories.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-30-95): NEWS REPORT: Gang snipers and drug dealers, broken elevators, leaky ceilings and squalid living conditions.
HENRY CISNEROS: And we made people live there. The juxtaposition of that reality and a solution like Gautreaux made it very clear to me we needed to work at this precisely at this point.
NARRATION: Cisneros promoted a pilot program in five cities. Unlike Gautreaux, it was primarily designed to target poverty, not segregation. But it shared the same concept, moving public housing families to wealthier neighborhoods.
HENRY CISNEROS: We’re going to provide you help finding an apartment, getting your children placed in school.
NARRATION: Soon, moving families from the projects to the suburbs created another public backlash.
ARCHIVAL (LOCAL BALTIMORE 13): NEWS REPORT: Twice this week parts of East Baltimore County have gathered to try to stop MTO, Move to Opportunity. MAN AT MEETING: Let’s put a stop to it folks!
ARCHIVAL (CBS BALTIMORE AFFILIATE, 9-1-94): LOUIS L. DEPAZZO (MARYLAND STATE LEGISLATOR): The people who would be sent out would be those who needed serious counseling, would need to be taught to take baths and not to steal.
NARRATION: And ten years later, when Lawrence Katz studied the nearly five thousand families in Moving to Opportunity who did move, the results were disappointing.
LAWRENCE KATZ (PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS, HARVARD UNIVERSITY): We were seeing very little in terms of the economic outcomes for the parents and very little in terms of things like test scores for the kids.
NARRATION: The early success of Chicago’s Gautreaux program looked like a fluke, and both Gautreaux and Moving to Opportunity came to an end. No new families would be moved.
ALEX POLIKOFF: The conventional wisdom became, mobility doesn’t work. Government was not willing to consider it as a policy.
NARRATION: By then, the Morris family had already left the suburbs – and moved to a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago.
KIAH MORRIS: I needed to just be around a diverse community. I wasn’t necessarily accepted by all of the white friends that I had. And I was too white in some levels from the Black kids that had moved into the community since then.
VALENCIA MORRIS: She grew up in the suburbs, so as far as knowing African Americans, she didn’t really know how we are. So, I said, “I need to get back into Chicago before she loses her identity.”
NARRATION: Since then, many of the high-rises have come down, and vouchers have become the largest part of the country’s public housing program. But the vouchers often don’t come with enough money or assistance to help families live in better neighborhoods. And in many cities, racial and economic segregation remain a problem.
HENRY CISNEROS: All of the other forms of segregation that exist in our society begin with where do you live, where do you stay? And the effects of that segregation may be harsher than ever.
ARCHIVAL (AL JAZEERA, 5-4-15): ANCHOR: In some places poverty got even more concentrated.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-29-15): NEWS REPORT: People don’t feel that they have full access to what most Americans and what people here would call the American dream.
NARRATION: In 2014, Lawrence Katz saw new research on the importance of neighborhoods, and decided to find out what happened to the children from Moving to Opportunity. And now that the youngest children had grown up, he discovered something policymakers hadn’t predicted.
LAWRENCE KATZ: We’re seeing them earning 30 percent more than a kid who didn’t get the opportunity to move to a better neighborhood. We’re seeing college going rates increase dramatically. We couldn’t see that when the kids weren’t old enough.
NARRATION: It turned out that the program wasn’t a failure at all.
LAWRENCE KATZ: Neighborhoods and childhood development are long investments and one has to have some patience. Most things that are investments take a while to pay off.
C. ZAWADI MORRIS: I am publisher and editor of “The Brooklyn Reader.” My middle sister, Jamillah, is a professor in Central Illinois.
NARRATION: And in 2014, her youngest sister, Kiah, because the second Black woman to be elected to the Vermont legislature.
KIAH MORRIS: I’m proud and honored to be the first person of color ever to come out of Bennington County. I’m the first Black woman to be elected to the House in 25 years. If we were not given this opportunity, would I be here today? There’s someone that deserves that chance to have energy to do the hard work that it takes to get ahead. And you can’t do that when you’re under the weight and oppression of poverty. You just cannot.
C. ZAWADI MORRIS: There are a lot of things that I can feel proud about. And I know in the back of my mind that it has nothing to do with me necessarily. It had to do with my circumstances. When my mother gave me the license to start fighting, that was going to probably be my life. I would have been someone completely different. I would have been a big waste of a person.
NARRATION: But Kiah Morris says it will take more than new neighborhoods to create change. In late 2018, she resigned from the Vermont legislature after more than a year of racial harassment by a reported white nationalist.
ARCHIVAL (NBC5 NEWS, 1-15-19):
KIAH MORRIS: For two years, we lived in my husband’s childhood home feeling unsafe.
NARRATION: She says not enough has been done to fight the problems that led to the Gautreaux housing program in the first place.
KIAH MORRIS: There is no way that we can look at what’s happening in our country right now and say that we’ve dealt with the issues of racism. We didn’t do the work in the civil rights movement. That work did not get completed. We never dealt with the underlying racism that established segregation to begin with.
JAMILLAH GILBERT: Nobody picks where they’re born or chooses where they’re raised as a child. You play the cards that you’re dealt with. I just think it’s unfortunate that the cards in our hands are, after 30 years, still unequal.
NARRATION: Today, it’s the potential economic benefit of new neighborhoods that’s getting attention. Lawrence Katz is working with cities trying new experiments in moving public housing families using detailed data on income and incarceration rates to find the neighborhoods most likely to help children escape poverty.
LAWRENCE KATZ: We’re losing people who could be innovators, we’re losing people who could be artists and we could have a much more vibrant society if we had less concentration of poverty and social problems.