Public Housing Tenants' Rights – From Durham to the Supreme Court 1969

1101 E. Lawson Street
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Lawyer and civil rights activists Floyd McKissick proclaimed, “Tenants cannot be evicted without due process,” when he heard that community organizer Joyce Thorpe had been thrown out of her public housing unit for working to empower low-income black women. As a citizen, she is entitled to fair treatment in the judicial system, and public housing agencies must provide explicit reasons for evicting tenants.

Thorpe lived in McDougald Terrace, a federally assisted housing project controlled by the Housing Authority of the City of Durham, North Carolina. After her marriage fell apart, it was growing concern for her own children that facilitated her efforts in community organizing. To help herself and 20 of her neighbors, she founded and became president of the McDougald Terrace Mother’s Club without the permission of the Housing Authority because they refused to discuss the issue. The Mother’s Club was an opportunity to provide children with day care so that mother’s could seek employment. Following her request for a meeting space for the club, the Housing Authority informed her that her lease would be cancelled without explanation.  

Howard Fuller, a leader of Operation Breakthrough, a program supported by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, organized a picket line of about sixty North Carolina College students that marched outside of the Housing Authority to protest Thorpe’s eviction. In addition, he reached out to one of his mentors in Durham, Floyd McKissick, a lawyer and civil rights leader, to represent Thorpe. He willingly accepted the job.

Initially, the court did not rule in her favor but after appealing her decision the case eventually reached the Supreme Court. The case, Joyce C. Thorpe, Petitioner, v. Housing Authority of the City of Durham (1969) was a victory for Thorpe and the Mother’s Club.

Floyd McKissick insisted that cause must be shown when evicting tenants occupying public housing. Ms. Thorpe’s case was ultimately the foundation of landmark protection of due process for tenants of public housing and encouraged many women to stand up for their rights despite their economic status.