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The Civil Rights Act of 1964: 50 years later

The Civil Rights Act of 1964: 50 years later

Numerous articles and conversations on The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed on July 2nd, 1964:

NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook dedicated its first hour to “The Civil Rights Act At 50, and Beyond”:

Fifty years ago today, July 2, President Lyndon Baines Johnson – LBJ – signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. JFK had raised the call for it, then been assassinated. In the nation’s grief, as Martin Luther King, Jr. led protests across the South, Johnson pushed it through. After a century of Jim Crow that had cut African-Americans off from hotels, restaurants, stores and much more, the Civil Rights Act said no, and launched an era of reform. Today, the talk is of voting rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, inequality and, yes, still race.

Nicolaus Mills writes in The Daily Beast on “Lyndon Johnson’s Last Miracle”:

Johnson’s determination to sign the Civil Rights Act as quickly as possible reflected his worry over the emotions surrounding its passage. The president wanted to make sure those who favored the act as well as those who opposed it did not have time to plan demonstrations that might draw attention from the momentousness of the legislation itself.

From public accommodations in hotels and restaurants to hiring in the workplace, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination. The act even gave the federal government new power to enforce school desegregation through the aid to education it provided. Not since Reconstruction had the country changed so dramatically with regard to race and the law.The president was aware of the difficulties he had made for himself as a result of his advocacy of the Civil Rights Act. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” he told Bill Moyers that night after the euphoria of the signing ceremony had worn off.

Johnson also realized how much he owed those who had helped him get the Civil Rights Bill passed over the opposition of the very southern Democrats he had once been close to. The president brought over 70 pens to the signing ceremony. One of them went to Martin Luther King Jr., but there was a large supply of pens earmarked for the senators and representatives Johnson had relied on for a bill he considered signature legislation….

It was no accident that the first pen Johnson gave on signing the Civil Rights Act went to Republican Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and that soon after Dirksen received his pen, another pen went to Ohio Republican Congressman Bill McCulloch, a key member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Sheryll Cashin hits a similar tone in an op-ed in The New York Times, “Justice for Blacks and Whites”:

As we celebrate its 50th anniversary, we should pay close attention to the strange bedfellows behind its passage. Progressives today need to be just as overt at creating bipartisan, cross-racial coalitions that can win policy battles.

President Kennedy had been reluctant to press for a comprehensive civil rights bill. But when Bull Connor turned fire hoses and attack dogs on the children of Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and nearly a thousand nonviolent protests erupted in over a hundred Southern cities, suddenly doing nothing seemed more disastrous than alienating Southern Democrats. Kennedy began to work with moderate Republicans who wanted to give their party a pro-civil-rights slant.

Although the protests may have seemed spontaneous, they were a result of years of organizing by some 85 local affiliates of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This grass-roots mobilization was multiracial, from the integrated legion of Freedom Riders, to the young activists in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, to the more than 250,000 demonstrators in the March on Washington, a quarter of whom were white.

There are important lessons here for progressives. Today most civil rights advocates focus on racial disparities, comparing the struggles of blacks and Latinos to those of whites without acknowledging that plenty of whites are harmed by the same structural barriers. Many whites shut down in the face of these arguments, rationalizing that minorities themselves are to blame and resenting the fact that their own economic pain is not being acknowledged.

Bill Bradberry of the Niagara Gazette wishes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a happy 50th birthday:

I was sixteen, headed toward graduation and “too smart for my own good”, as Mom would sometimes rudely remind me that I did not know and I certainly did not understand half as much as I thought I did, still don’t.

But I did know this much: Things were going to be a whole lot different from now on; the president has signed the Civil Rights bill into law, and we were going to get our fair opportunities for education and decent jobs regardless of race NOW, I thought.

It had been a long, dirty, viciously hard fought bloody struggle; the segregationists were hell bent on keeping things exactly as they were.

The Civil Rights Law had arrived, though battered and weakened after decades of blockage in Washington by the representatives of the Deep South.

Bradberry also considers what it all means today:

Well, that was then, this is now, and though we have made some stunning progress since those grand old days, we also need to be constantly aware of the tendency to drift backward in some cases.

Some key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, are clearly under attack in the Supreme Court and in some Deep South and other states while too many of those ridiculous old arguments against progress and achievement are echoing around the chambers in Washington making some things feel like déjà vu all over again.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 still matters, to everyone probably more so now than it did on this very day 50 years ago today when LBJ signed it into law. No doubt, we need to keep moving forward together as poet James Weldon Johnson put it in words and his brother John Rosamond Johnson set to music:

“Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.”

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