Sometimes the agents of progress do not resemble angels, sometimes they are the furthest thing from it. But that doesn’t mean that an imperfect person can’t be an unequivocal force for good. This seemed to be the case with Jesse ‘Big Daddy’ Unruh. The larger-than-life California assemblyman got his nickname from a character in the Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was born in Kansas but his parents relocated to West Texas where they did not fare well during the Great Depression. “The chief reality of our youth was economic,” he said. After a stint in the Navy during WWII he moved to California where he decided to pursue a career in politics.
It was here, in a state growing exponentially in both population and capital, that his boisterous nature and backroom style of politics served him well. He became one of the most influential state assemblymen in the country and at the height of his power was second only to the governor of the state in wielding political influence. He was an early supporter and long time friend of John F. Kenney and was present when his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, was killed in Los Angeles.
By all accounts, Unruh was a man with a personal agenda. U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once described Unruh as “probably one of the most selfish men” he had met in politics. He even admitted, speaking of himself in the third person no less, that he was able to benefit from his influence, “True Jesse Unruh may have benefited slightly, but there were a lot more benefits for California,” he said in a way where you can almost hear the open self-indulgence that came to define him.
But this imperfect man actually did something that will outlive his many faults: he spearheaded one of the first and more important commercial civil rights acts. His 1959 Unruh Civil Rights Act made all businesses operating in California liable to fines and civil litigation if they denied service based “on account of color, race, religion, ancestry, or national origin.” This certainly pertained to real estate brokers, who fell under the jurisdiction of the act once they became licensed in the state.
Helping prevent agents from discriminating when choosing their clients is important but the bigger issue at hand was what happens when a broker’s client, a seller of a home lets say, engages in discriminiotry practices. Sellers are not businesses and certainly, an agent can not be punished for following the orders of his client, right? According to the way the bill was written, very much yes. The Unruh Act made no distinction between agent and principle by extending the punishments to “whoever denies, or who aids, or incites such denial, or whoever makes any discrimination, distinction or restriction contrary to the provisions [..] of this code.”
To this day if you take a real estate license test in California you are nearly guaranteed to get at least a few questions on what you can and can not do in terms of racial discrimination thanks to the Unruh Act. It can affect everything from how you market a property to how you accept applications to how you present offers. (One notable exception to this rule is that senior communities can prohibit younger tenants and families from their communities.)
California is often a leader when it comes to progressive policies (for better or worse), but this is a shining example of the importance of the state’s leadership. Remember, this bill was passed five years before the Federal Civil Rights Act gave similar protections across the nation and eight years before laws against interracial marriage were found unconstitutional.
While the bill might have had vehement opposition at the time it now has history on its side and is largely seen as an important step in curbing racist business practices. And none of it would have been achieved without Big Daddy Unruh. He was an imperfect actor in one of the most important cultural and political movements in the history of the country. Growing up in abject poverty likely influenced Unruh’s quest for equality as well as his pursuit of personal gain while doing so. He was and remains an unlikely hero of the underrepresented and underserved and that, above all else, will remain his legacy.