In January 1966, Polikoff, a partner at a Chicago law firm, decided to work part-time pro bono on a lawsuit charging the Chicago Housing Authority, and later, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with racial discrimination. In Chicago, new public housing projects were invariably built in black ghettoes. High rise projects were concentrating poor blacks in areas that felt like reservations. The lead plaintiff was Dorothy Gautreaux, an African-American tenant leader who had been steered to public housing in the ghetto in 1953.

Around the same time, political efforts were being made to highlight housing discrimination in Chicago. In the summer of 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King came to Chicago to promote fair housing. It was one of his rare failures. When King led a march on Gage Park, a white section of Chicago, he was confronted by a white mob and knocked to the ground by a rock. People shouted, “Kill him, kill him!” King commented, “The people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

On the legal front, Polikoff and his colleagues were far more effective and won a court finding of discrimination in 1969. But the determination of guilt was only the beginning of the battle. In April 1970, at the age of 43, Polikoff decided to quit his comfortable job as a partner at the firm of Schiff Hardin & Waite to work full time on the Gautreaux litigation and other matters for a public interest law firm. Many of his partners–and his parents– thought he had taken leave of his senses, but Polikoff had found his life’s calling.

The case took various twists and turns, which culminated in a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 on the question of the remedy for plaintiffs. The major issue was whether the victims of discrimination should receive the opportunity to live in publicly supported housing in the Chicago suburbs or be limited to the city of Chicago. Polikoff argued the case against his former classmate at the University of Chicago, the solicitor general Robert Bork.

Polikoff feared that the Supreme Court would follow its ruling in the school desegregation case of Milliken v. Bradley (1974), which held that the remedy to racial segregation in the city of Detroit could not extend to the surrounding suburbs. As a matter of social and educational policy, the ruling was a disaster. In places like Boston, limiting the reach of desegregation to the city limits produced a strong backlash from working-class whites, who noted that the white supporters of desegregation–the federal judge, the editors of the Boston Globe, and the Harvard professors–all tended to live in the suburbs, beyond the scope of the desegregation order. As a matter of educational policy, mixing working-class whites and working-class blacks had little positive effect on academic achievement. The research had long shown that the academic benefits of integration came not from allowing black children to sit next to whites, but from giving low-income students a chance to go to middle-class schools.

Polikoff bested Bork before the Supreme Court, and in April 1976, the Court ruled unanimously that housing was different from schooling because the relevant housing market is metropolitan in nature. The remedy for the plaintiffs could involve housing in the suburbs, the Court said, through a new federal program–Section 8 housing vouchers, which were used to subsidize rent in the private housing market.

Having won the legal case, skeptics wondered whether black ghetto residents would even want to move to distant white suburbs where they might well be subject to discrimination. Some didn’t want to do so. But many did. In one of the early years, as word got out about the program, several thousand black public housing residents lined up to register on the designated day. “Buses had to be rerouted. Mounted police had trouble keeping order,” Polikoff noted. Soon afterwards, a phone bank was set up for registration to avoid these problems. But thousands of Gautreaux callers jammed the lines and the entire city’s phone system was endangered. Polikoff says that one year, while serving as a phone volunteer, he took a call at around 11:30 am from a woman who laughed for two solid minutes. When she was finally able to control herself, she apologized and said, “I’m laughing for joy. I’ve been dialing since eight this morning and I can’t believe I finally got through.” In the end, nearly 25,000 African Americans in public housing were given a chance to live in largely white suburbs. The program reached its goal and was ended in 1998.

The Gautreaux experiment offers a rare opportunity to examine a long-disputed question: Does moving to a more affluent neighborhood improve the life chances of poor families? Gautreaux offered something close to a controlled experiment. Because the program was oversubscribed, some families who wished to move out of public housing projects were assigned to housing in the city, while others were assigned to housing in the suburbs. Researchers from Northwestern University found that the children of suburban moves were four times more likely to finish high school than city movers and were almost twice as likely to attend college. While some families did suffer from racial discrimination, most considered the environment far better than the dangers of the city. The New York Times called the Gautreaux program a “modest variation on the Underground Railroad.”

The positive results of the Gautreaux program caught the eye of federal policymakers and were the model for the federal Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, begun under George H.W. Bush’s housing secretary, Jack Kemp, and expanded by Kemp’s successor during the Bill Clinton administration, Henry Cisneros. MTO differed from Gautreaux in that it focused on reducing poverty concentrations, not racial segregation per se. Under MTO, five cities were selected to provide public housing residents living in census tracts with 40 percent poverty rates or more a chance to move to subsidized housing in communities with less than 10 percent poverty rates.

As Polikoff notes, the experiment didn’t work out as expected. MTO participants could move after a single year, and the vast majority ended up in poor and working-class communities with lousy schools that had almost as much poverty as the schools they’d left. The program looked more like moving to mediocrity than to opportunity. Not surprisingly, recent studies of the program have found little or no educational benefit to movers.

In the final section of the book, Polikoff makes recommendations for taking Gautreaux to the national scale. He proposes that 50,000 housing vouchers be made available annually to black families living in urban ghettoes for use in white areas with less than 10 percent poverty. At that rate, he estimates, if municipalities surrounding America’s 127 largest cities absorbed just 10 families a year, after a decade, half of the blacks living in America’s high-poverty urban ghettoes would have escaped to greener pastures.

Polikoff’s recommendation to limit the program to blacks is misplaced. Politically, Americans are far more open to the idea of helping the poor of all races than just one racial group. Legally, the courts disfavor the use of race unless (as in Gautreaux), race is used as a direct remedy to documented discrimination. And as a matter of social policy, as Polikoff himself acknowledges, research finds that schools fail not because they have “too many” black children, but because they have overwhelming concentrations of poverty.

But his larger idea–helping poor families, especially poor kids, escape concentrated poverty–highlights the crucial point that is missing from mainstream education-reform debates: that separate schools for rich and poor will never be equal. Right-wing advocates of private school vouchers properly argue that poor kids in failing high-poverty schools deserve something better, fast, but their remedy will only increase social divisions. Polikoff’s alternative–housing vouchers, not school vouchers–is far more promising because it gives poor kids a chance to attend good, middle-class public schools that can provide both social mobility and social cohesion. Similarly, public school choice programs in St. Louis, Hartford, and elsewhere have long given poor urban kids the opportunity to attend good suburban public schools. Both ideas are very tough political sells; the one thing they have going for them is their long track records of success.

The implications of the Gautreaux case go on and on. Forty years after he began, Alexander Polikoff is still thinking them through. His is a lawyer’s tale well worth listening to.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School, and All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School, and All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice.

Richard Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and is writing a book about housing segregation.