A look at the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's Civil Rights Act, its history and how it is viewed today.
Today President Obama will be giving the keynote address at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. An event that will commemorate one of the landmark pieces of legislation in the battle against discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on July 2, 50 years ago. Three other ex-Presidents will also be in attendance.
In 1963, President Kennedy called on Congress to take action on a broad civil rights measure. Due to Kennedy’s untimely death, President Johnson was able to get the Civil Rights Act signed it into law. After spending a dozen years in the House of Representatives, another dozen in the Senate, almost three years as Kennedy’s Vice President, Johnson had afforded himself ample capital to throw around.
“Johnson was probably the last president that had a controllable legislature,” said former Ambassador Andrew Young, one of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s top lieutenants in 1964. “He had lived and breathed and been through a thousand battles with these guys. There was almost nobody in the House or the Senate that he had not done a favor for. He understood that civil rights was a moral issue and that poverty was a moral issue in America, that it was just not right.”
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Only Johnson had the connections to break the weeks long deadlock that held the bill up in the Senate. In addition to maintaining a rapport with civil rights leaders, Johnson would call up congressmen at all hours, even waking them up. If he couldn’t reach a congressman, Johnson would call the congressman’s wife. No one else had that energy, that ability, that knowledge, all those relationships to call upon,” she said.
It happened over a July 4th weekend, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy was very skeptical of its passage over a holiday weekend. He was concerned about riots and gun shots going off along with the fireworks. President Johnson, standing 6’4″ and known to keep a “card-file” in his head, said, “There’s no point in waiting,”
Not only would it “irritate a lot of people unnecessarily,” but also the Republicans – 27 of whom were integral to ending a filibuster and bringing the bill to the Senate floor for a vote — were planning to leave Washington after the signing. “I think they’d say I was trying to take a little glory away from them on a bipartisan basis,” Johnson told Kennedy. And the legislation was signed and passed.
According to a 1999 Gallup poll, more than half of Americans (58%) considered the act to be one of the most important events of 20th century. Half a century later, the question of progress remains. Without the act, President Obama would not be President and who knows what would be the fate of black enfranchisement? Not just voting, but a host of rights that are easily taken for granted today: sitting at a lunch counter, going to school, enjoying a movie or landing a job. The act addressed them all, while laying the groundwork for more rights and tougher enforcement in years to come.
“Johnson may be remembered as the Vietnam War president, but in his mind his greatest legacy was his efforts to improve the lives of African-Americans,” said Clay Risen, The New York Times’ opinion page co-editor and author of “The Bill of the Century. “He had much to show for it: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Head Start and more,” Risen wrote. “But as the 1960’s wore on, he also saw himself in a race – against black militancy, against rising ghetto frustrations, against an increasingly conservative white electorate.”
Equal employment opportunity, public accommodations, public education and voting rights were all part of the Civil Rights Act. They are all used to measure how much progress has really been made in assessing the racial divides specific to these areas. In the survey, about a third (35%) of blacks said they had personally experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity over the past year. That compared with 20% of Hispanics and 10% of whites.
According to a Pew Research Center, among blacks, just 32% said the country had made a lot of progress since the 1960’s and about eight-in-ten (79%) said a lot more work needs to be done. Whites have a sunnier outlook: About half (48%) said a lot of progress had been made and, compared with blacks, a smaller share (44%) said a lot more needs to be done.
Lately, progress seems to be moving one step forward, two steps back, but with continuing legislation keeping the movement alive. There is progress, but there is a lot of racism and bigotry from those hanging on to pre-Civil Rights Act ideology by their fingernails. Lawmakers no longer debate, instead they seem to spew hate.
Our first black President has been vilified along with his family. His landmark legislation, the “Affordable Care Act” has gone through countless repeal attempts to say the least. I cannot think of a time in my life where division and hatred is so acceptable. There have been President’s that I did not agree with, but I do not remember ever wishing they would fail, praying for their death, cartoons of their lynching, or worse.
President Obama is going to be in the Oval Office for three more years. Either we use the Civil Rights Act as an example of what is possible or we let the legacy of our country lapse back into a time that only those who opposed the act care to remember. We’ve come so far, but time will tell if we go full circle.