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Attorney Loren Miller (center) awaiting a verdict in 1963. Miller spent most of his career fighting housing discrimination and racist housing covenants.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

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The LA lawyer who won housing rights for all Americans

Loren Miller was the go-to lawyer for black homeowners fighting discrimination

It was the summer of 1948, and attorney Loren Miller was the toast of Los Angeles. On May 3, the United States Supreme Court had ruled that racist real estate covenants barring minorities from living in “white-only” areas could not be enforced by federal or state courts. Miller, alongside future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and other prominent lawyers, had argued the case, Shelley v. Kraemer, on behalf of black homeowners threatened with eviction from their own homes.

When Miller returned to his handsome home in Silver Lake, he was honored at dinners and banquets. He was given plaques and two wristwatches. The Southern California branch of the ACLU praised him for achieving “one of the signal achievements in the cause of democracy in this generation.” In his typically wry, understated way, Miller wrote to a friend: “We told ’em so, huh?”

Miller had come a long way from a childhood of extreme poverty and housing insecurity. He was born on January 20, 1903, in Pender, Nebraska. He was the second of seven children. His father, John Bird Miller, had been enslaved, and his mother, Nora Magdalena Herbaugh, was an auburn-haired white woman. The Millers were the only black family in the county, and young Loren grew up going to school and playing with white children.

Surly and witty from an early age, his family nicknamed him “Lemon.” The handsome boy was also clearly very smart, and his intellectual development was encouraged by his parents and other adults in Pender. His father, who loved to read, encouraged his love of books, while the local trial judge let him sit in the courtroom for hours, soaking in the proceedings.

But life in the Miller family was not easy. On the hardscrabble frontier, the family encountered relatively little overt racism. It was poverty and occasional hunger that dogged them throughout Miller’s childhood, although his father was always employed. Amina Hassan, in her definitive biography, Loren Miller: Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist, recounts the anxiety experienced by him due to the family’s frequent moves from one small clapboard house to another, often just outrunning eviction.

Miller, circa 1930.
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

This feeling of instability increased twenty-fold when the family moved to Kansas in 1913 to be closer to John Miller’s kin. In Kansas, Miller discovered a world where blacks and whites lived separate and unequal lives, leaving biracial people like him stranded.

On one particularly formative day, the adolescent was taunted by a darker skinned cousin named Willie for thinking he was better than other black people because his mother was white, only to later be kicked out of a drugstore because he was black. “He resolved one day to buy his own drugstore and ‘let everybody come in who wanted,’” according to Hassan. “‘Yes, he would even let Willie Starr come in, ugly as Willie was.’”

As a teenager, Miller yearned to be a creative writer. He had the talent, possessing what one friend decades later called the “ability to say in a beautiful way what the average man wants to say, in language that he can understand.” He attended both Kansas University and Howard University, working to support himself and aided by his family, including his brother Cecil, who dropped out of school to work so Miller could continue his education.

He still wanted to be a writer, but Miller decided to become a lawyer out of what he felt was his duty to his father, who had died in 1920, and his race. “I was dragged kicking and screaming into the practice of law because, you know, in those days a Negro could be a doctor, lawyer or schoolteacher—and that’s about all,” he recalled.

Miller graduated from Topeka’s Washburn Law School in 1928, dreading a life where “you will be pushed down to preying on police court characters, loose women and gamblers, with perhaps a small share of legitimate business.” He briefly practiced law in Topeka, before joining his mother and siblings in Los Angeles, where they had moved years earlier.

Southern California had long been seen as the promised land by many black Americans. In 1913, W.E.B. Du Bois had claimed black Angelenos to be “the most beautifully housed group of colored people in the United States.” Homeownership percentages for African- Americans were significantly higher than in most parts of the country.

Miller, however, was not as wide-eyed as Du Bois. “The California myth was sweeping across the nation, and people had begun to say and believe that California was a land of opportunity and Negroes had, I guess, made the same decision,” he recalled.

The Silver Lake home where Miller and his family lived.

Miller found a city, which, for all its hype, was just as segregated as other parts of the country. White residents used racially restrictive covenants and zoning laws to keep minorities in specific neighborhoods. California, he wrote:

…has produced racial restrictive covenants far superior, if that is the word, to the ordinary run-of-mine racial restrictive covenant….none could dwell but blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans, certified 99.44% pure…all of them five feet 10 7/8” tall, addicts of Little Orphan Annie.

Putting his law career on the backburner, he began writing popular essays for The California Eagle, the legendary paper owned by civil rights activists Charlotta and Joseph Bass. His critical eye soon turned to the celebrated black mecca of Central Avenue, which he found sorely lacking:

I have yet to see a business street in any so-called black belt of the country that presents a more bedraggled appearance than Central Avenue. The avenue is cluttered up with smelly chicken ranches parading as markets, and down at the heels speakeasies from one end to the other.

Like many intellectuals of his generation, Miller espoused Marxist ideals and contributed to influential Communist leaning magazines and journals. In 1932, he joined his good friend Langston Hughes, activist Louise Thompson, and others on an epic trip at the behest of the Soviet Union, which wanted to make a film about the black experience in the American South.

The month’s long journey throughout the Soviet Union was life-changing for Miller, who saw a country seemingly free of racism, where he and his colleagues were celebrated. The trip was somewhat of a disaster—the movie was canceled due to pressure from American business interests—but Miller contributed stories to numerous papers back in America, bringing thousands of Americans with him on his journey.

The area on Central Avenue where Miller set up his law practice.

Upon returning to Los Angeles, Miller married his fiancée, Juanita, an intellectual social worker who was firmly established in black LA’s high society. They would eventually have two sons, Loren Jr. (who became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, as did his daughter) and Edward.

In 1933, Miller and his cousin Leon H. Washington founded the Los Angeles Sentinel, a free paper for black Angelenos. Miller wrote the unsigned editorials. He also set up a small law practice at Vernon and Central avenues, and finally plunged into the law career he had put off for so long.

Vernon Avenue and Central Avenue.

As historian Kenneth W. Mack argues in his book Representing the Race, it was Miller’s law practice that drew him into the local community, turning him from theory to action. Although many of his early cases were petty matters as he had feared, he also represented black Angelenos, including famous activist Pauli Murray, who were discriminated against at work and in their homes.

His first high profile case came in 1938, when he represented George Farley. Farley was accused of killing two deputy marshals who had come to evict him from his home in the Central Avenue neighborhood.

With Farley facing the gas chamber, Miller laid out an ingenious defense. Farley had paid his mortgage in 1929, only to discover his home had been bought by a white buyer—without his knowledge—at auction because he had not paid a street assessment bond. According to Miller, Farley experienced temporary insanity and shock, stating at trial that he had been assured that “nobody could ever take the place from me unless I mortgaged it or sold it.”

Black Angelenos rallied around Farley, deeply touched by his feelings of displacement. In a major victory, Farley was convicted of double manslaughter—but his life was spared.

In The Petitioners, Miller’s masterful history of the Supreme Court and black rights, he quotes Sir Edward Coke: “The home of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defense against injury and violence as repose.”

In 1940, he and Juanita built their own fortress, designed by modernist James H. Garrott, who built his own home next door. The new home was in the bohemian enclave of Silver Lake, across town from the hubs of the black middle class and Miller’s own family in Watts.

More and more Miller became involved in civil rights’ struggles. He advocated for Japanese Angelenos, increasingly discriminated against as the country ramped up for war. He supported Japanese leaders in their efforts to buy new residential lots at Jefferson and La Brea, to stop the city from continuing to “confine minority groups to undesirable sections of the city.”

He later spoke out against Japanese evacuation and internment. “It is a safe assumption that an office holder who is willing to deprive any minority group of any of its rights is not a safe person to entrust with the rights of any other minority group,” he wrote.

During the late ’30s and early ’40s, black Angelenos started to buy homes in areas like Sugar Hill in West Adams Heights, despite the racially restrictive covenants. They soon found themselves in court, facing eviction.

Miller became the go-to man for black homeowners caught up in this battle. “Pretty soon when other lawyers got them they simply referred them to me because they were rather technical,” he recalled.

“One national survey counted twenty covenant cases in that city at the close of the war, far outstripping those in other cities. Miller had a hand in just about all of them,” Mack writes. In The Petitioners, Miller explained:

Proponents of racial covenants argued that they had a right to have their contracts enforced in the courts. The principle of equal protection of the laws was met, they said, by the fact the Negroes were equally free to create and enforce restrictive covenants against ownership, use or occupancy of their property by white persons. Besides, they added, the fourteenth amendment did not prohibit discrimination by private persons.

Miller’s answer to this was simple. In cases where law enforcement was involved, the private was public. “In truth,” he wrote in The Petitioners, “our increasingly complex urban society has progressively involved the state in a myriad of activities that were once matters of purely private concern. The distinction between ‘private’ and ‘state’ action has worn so thin that it is sometimes said that what the state tolerates, the state commands.”

Miller and progressive theorists believed that covenants were illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment. However, a judge had never agreed to this in court. That changed in December 1945 when Miller argued for the right of Sugar Hill homeowners, including movie stars Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers, to stay in their homes.

In a packed courtroom, filled with the defendants and their supporters, Miller electrified the court, arguing that government enforcement of racially restrictive covenants violated his client’s Fourteenth Amendment rights. Judge Thurmond Clarke agreed, stating:

It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations and evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th amendment of the Federal Constitution.

Clarke’s ruling would eventually pave the way for a national end to restrictive covenants and education segregation. Miller was the darling of the civil rights community, but as always, he wrote about his success to a friend in his typically humorous style:

I rushed home to try the “Sugar Hill” restriction case and succeeded in pulling a rabbit out of the hat by inducing a local judge to hold race restriction covenants unenforceable on the grounds that such enforcement would violate the 14th amendment. This was a rather neat trick in view of numerous holdings to the contrary by both state and federal courts.

Miller was now a legal star, called the “best civil rights lawyer on the West Coast” by NAACP legal mastermind Thurgood Marshall. With his cousin Leon Washington, Miller hosted a popular local radio show about “what 15 million Negroes are saying, doing and thinking.” He also ran in the Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat but was beaten by the fascinating Helen Gahagan Douglas.

The NAACP was increasingly aware that the time to act on housing covenants was now. “War’s end brought no surcease,” Miller recalled. “The migrants kept on coming, the children kept on being born and the population kept on growing.” For most black Americans, the areas where they were allowed to live remained the same, causing overcrowding and lack of housing.

Miller, with the Sugar Hill case languishing in the California appeals process, was called upon by Marshall to join him and the NAACP in the national fight against covenants.

Restrictive covenant cases from all over the country, known collectively as Shelley v. Kraemer, were chosen by Marshall to take before the United States Supreme Court. Marshall chose Miller to work with him on the case of McGhee v. Sipes, the only one of the suits officially sponsored by the NAACP.

The case was tried in Washington, D.C., on January 15, 1948. On that day, Miller, the son of a man born into enslavement, argued in a “lucid and persuasive” way to the Supreme Court that “a state cannot support property rights when that right denies another its civil right.”

The court’s May decision declaring the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional marked a turning point in the long march towards civil rights.

“This blow to racial segregation in the field of housing, opens up the pending fight against segregation in education” and “must be carried on with renewed vigor,” Marshall wrote.

Miller joined Marshall in this new mission, putting his legal and literary skills to use by writing most of the briefs for Brown v. Board of Education. Another bundle of cases fighting racial discrimination, this time in the segregated school system, the ruling on Brown was issued by the Supreme Court in 1954.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” With the Brown victory, Miller wrote, “That Great Gettin’ Up Morning story in the old negro spiritual had arrived.”

Miller and Juanita (who eventually oversaw the government’s County Charities Division for a dozen southern counties of California) were now beloved members of the progressive community in Los Angeles.

In 1951, Miller bought The California Eagle. His editorial introducing the new paper was a long way from the surly Marxism of his youth. “Today is in the making… the Negro newspaper is in on the whole picture… everybody is invited to get on the bandwagon. Today is ours, and today alone. Let’s go!”

Miller had a heart attack in 1959, but it did little to slow him down. Dubbed “Mr. Civil Rights,” he was seemingly on every social justice board imaginable. He served as an advisor to President Kennedy and danced with Juanita at the inauguration.

In 1964, he was named a Los Angeles Municipal Court Justice where he was assigned to traffic court. “He did it in a very human way,” one visitor to his court recalled.” A chuckle over this one’s improbable story, a sympathetic ear to another—and a stern lecture and 10 days in jail for a serious offense.”

Though he had mellowed with age, Miller knew there was much work still to be done. “We can’t stand still,” he once said. “Either we shall have to make democracy work for every American, or in the last analysis we shall not be able to preserve it for any American.”

In 1966, Miller’s historical opus, The Petitioners: The Story of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Negro, was published, documenting his peers who had refused to stand still.

A lifelong heavy smoker, Miller died on July 14, 1967, of pulmonary emphysema and pneumonia. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery. “No man can be sure his intentions came to good ends,” he wrote, “I’ll just have to let the whole thing go with the hope I did more good than wrong.”

Editor: Jenna Chandler

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