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A half-century ago, a hard-fought campaign culminated in a night of impassioned debate and political drama with then-Mayor Henry Reynolds casting an early-morning, tie-breaking vote to create Madison’s Equal Opportunities Ordinance.

The ordinance, approved at a meeting that started on Dec. 12, 1963, and ended at 2 a.m., was born amid local and national struggles for equality and the reality that Madison was divided by severe housing discrimination.

The ordinance has since grown to be one of the country’s most comprehensive local civil and human rights laws. Earlier this month, the City Council added the unemployed to a list of more than 20 protected classes.

“The original ordinance was the base upon which we were able to construct a diverse and open community,” Mayor Paul Soglin said. “But there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done in the area of equity and the economy.”

What now seems firmly built into the city’s legal framework came only after local civil rights advocates like the late Rev. James C. Wright and a host of organizations like Madison Citizens for Fair Housing, the local chapter of the NAACP and League of Women Voters joined to confront discrimination.

The city will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordinance with a reception and brief programs Thursday at the Madison Municipal Building.

As first adopted, the ordinance banned discrimination by race, color, religion or national origin in public accommodation, employment, public facilities and some kinds of housing. It also created an Equal Opportunities Commission.

The law now protects many more classes, including citizenship status, age, disability, marital status, source of income, arrest or conviction record, less-than-honorable discharge, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender or genetic identity, political beliefs, family, student or domestic partnership status, or status as a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking.

“Madison was ahead of the federal government,” city Civil Rights Department Director Lucia Nunez said, noting the landmark Federal Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. “We’re cutting-edge. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t racism and discrimination going on. We’re far from ending it.”

Housing the catalyst issue

The ordinance was forged over discrimination in housing.

From 1959 through 1962, studies and reports revealed a major discrimination problem and that black families were restricted to two parts of the city.

Civil rights leaders and organizations pushed for an Equal Opportunities Ordinance. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, then an attorney, helped write the original draft.

The Madison Board of Realtors led an opposition to the ordinance, saying it would restrict rights and freedoms of individual property owners and constrain their right to sell to the person of their choice. Ten days before the vote, Realtors bought full-page newspaper advertisements stating opposition to any “so-called ‘fair housing’ ordinance” that would erode their “basic rights of property ownership in an attempt to solve the problems of a few.”

The ordinance, with the housing section watered down to exclude owner-occupied homes and apartments with four or fewer units, passed only after votes on eight amendments, a narrowly failed bid to push the issue to referendum, and Reynolds breaking an 11-11 tie.

The final vote was controversial. According to news accounts, there were allegations that some City Council members were pressured into support by Democratic Party officials, and complaints by opponents of “extremist-type phone calls” from citizens who backed the measure. Soglin said some who voted for the ordinance weren’t fully committed, while others who voted no for various reasons later became aggressive defenders of the law and fought for civil rights.

In May 1968, Wright was named the commission’s first executive director, serving for 24 years.

Legacy continues

These days, staff investigate complaints, there are efforts to mediate, and a hearing examiner makes decisions that can be appealed to the commission and then the courts. The city considered 123 cases in 2012.

“The administrative process is very accessible for ordinary people,” Nunez said. “You don’t need access to high-powered lawyers, and you don’t need money to be heard.”

The commission, which continues to explore appropriate protections as society and science evolve, has also dug deeply into discrimination in housing, employment, policing, traffic stops, alcohol licensing, loitering, and arrest and conviction records.

The council’s request that it study allegations of racial tension in the black community and police led to a 1969 report and recommendations on Police Department community relations, hiring and training. Its 1997 report on “Alcohol Licensing and Traffic Stops of African Americans” spurred creation of a special Task Force on Race Relations.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but the job’s not done,” said Steven Morrison, who served on the commission for 12 years and led the Jewish Federation of Madison for 27 years before retiring in 2010.

“The next big thing,” Nunez said, “is homelessness.”


Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.