“The purpose of the law is simple…those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.”
– President Lyndon B. Johnson, July 2, 1964
July 2 marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. 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 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.
According to a recent USA Today article, “In almost every economic category, blacks have been gaining, but not by enough. Median family income (in inflation-adjusted dollars) is up from $22,000 in 1963 to more than $40,000 today, still just two-thirds of the median for all Americans. Black unemployment remains twice the level of white unemployment, similar to where it was in 1972. The black poverty rate has dropped from more than 40% in the 1960s to about 27 percent today; child poverty similarly has dipped from 67% to about 40 percent. Those numbers still are glaring, however. And the gap in overall wealth is more than 5-to-1 between whites and blacks…”
Perhaps the most visible demonstration of the progress we have made over the past 50 years is the 2008 election and the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama as America’s first Black president. But even that achievement has been met with a backlash, as right wing voter suppression efforts have risen since President Obama first took office and the United States Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 last year. Obviously, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, our work is not yet done.
As we noted last week in our statement in support of the Voting Rights Amendment Act now before Congress, “The National Urban League believes there is no better and fitting tribute to the men and women who 50 years ago fought for and died to secure a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act than to pass the VRAA this year before the November mid-term elections. We cannot focus only on a celebration of progress. We must also ensure there is a continuation of the very equality and opportunity that are at the core of this country’s democratic values.”
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.