February 24, 2020

Visit to National Civil Rights Museum Illuminates Continued Lack of Access to Affordable Housing in Rural Communities

Lorraine Motel in Memphis

On a recent visit back home to rural Mississippi, I decided to make a quick trip to the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis – the site of Dr. King’s assassination. I remember visiting this museum on class field trips with my elementary school. 

It’s been over a decade now since my last visit to the museum, and nothing much has changed. However, my work and time away in Washington has given me a chance to view my roots with fresh eyes and a greater appreciation for my local civil rights history. 

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums of the ghetto of our northern cities … knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Fair Housing Act Spotlights Housing as a Fundamental Right

One of the exhibits that caught my attention was about the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The exhibit explained how local activists viewed decent housing as a fundamental right. 

When the Act declared it illegal for private individuals to discriminate based on race in the sale or rental of housing, it was considered a major milestone in black history – the last, in fact, prior to Dr. King’s assassination.

The Historical Culture of Inequality in the Mississippi Delta

Walking through the museum, I was reminded about the history of local civil rights activists such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer and James Meredith, and the policies that they fought against that kept African Americans disadvantaged decades ago – policies that remain unresolved today. 

Many rural counties in Mississippi, and surrounding metropolitan cities such as Memphis, are still feeling the effects of decades of racial trauma and racial inequity. In fact, Mississippi communities are among the most disadvantaged in the nation, based on income levels, health and social mobility. 

Driven by historical context, the reasons Southerners fled to the North for better housing conditions or for better economic advancements are the same reasons Southerners move out of their rural towns to cities today: racial inequity and disproportion of fair job wages. 

Persistent Shortage of Affordable Housing in Rural America

Minorities in rural areas are among the poorest and worst housed people in the nation. Non-white and Hispanic rural households are three times more likely to live in substandard housing than white rural residents. 

According to the National Rural Housing Coalition report, Housing Need in Rural America, there are approximately 116 million occupied housing units available in the United States. Of those, 25 million units are in rural and small communities and over 1.5 million of these homes are considered either moderately or severely substandard. 

Rural housing programs have experienced drastic budget cuts in recent years. To help address the need, our Rural and Native American Program (RNAP) continues to support rural communities by providing technical assistance, capacity building, and guidance on accessing and leveraging critical financing programs. 

Through RNAP, we see firsthand the need for housing stability, as well as the impact that housing stability can have for low-income families in rural and Native communities. Learn more about this important program and the ways you can help support affordable rural rental housing in your community. 

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