Wednesday, July 2, 2014
July 2 marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed discrimination and segregation based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. First introduced by President John F. Kennedy shortly before his 1963 assassination, the Civil Rights Act also offered greater protections for the right to vote and paved the way for another historic achievement one year later – the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Momentum for the legislation picked up following the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the National Urban League’s Whitney M. Young, along with 250,000 activists and citizens, gathered to demand “Jobs and Freedom” for people of all races who were locked out, left out, and disenfranchised. President Kennedy, a Massachusetts liberal, introduced the bill in June of 1963, just five months before his assassination. It was up to his appointed successor, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a former United States Senator from Texas with deep southern roots, to carry it over the finish line. Despite extreme opposition, especially from his former southern Congressional allies, President Johnson successfully navigated the bill’s passage. He signed it into law on July 2, 1964, surrounded by Dr. King, Whitney Young and a multi-racial group of civil rights activists. It was only 50 years ago that it was legal in some states to deny Blacks the right to eat in the same restaurants as whites, to sit in the same movie theaters or even to apply for the same jobs. Thankfully, that is no longer true anywhere in America. We have also seen other gains, including a rising Black middle class and an increase in African American high school graduation rates. However, there is still a wide opportunity gap in America.