The Civil Rights Act: 50 Years Later

Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands behind the President.

Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands behind the President.

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. No, I don’t remember the day. I was getting ready to turn six the following morning.

In spite of opposition from Southern Democrats, Johnson fought long and hard for this legislation. Now, having read some of Robert Caro’s works about LBJ, and knowing that above all he was a master-politician, let me say I’m skeptical of his motives. Still it was the right thing to do no matter his motive.

It’s important to note as well that Johnson did this with the help of Republicans. In fact, without Republicans, the measure would not have passed over the objections of people including Al Gore, Sr. and West Virginia Senator (and former Klansman) Robert Byrd who filibustered the act.

Sorry, this post is getting a little too political, but some of y’all just need to learn your history. You can read about the passage of the Act here.

As for me, 1964 was the year I started school. It was also the year schools were desegregated in Giles County.

I don’t have many vivid memories of my childhood. Some are just a blur, or perhaps a re-imagining. But I remember the ride to school that first day. I was being taken by an aunt and a family friend because my mother was recuperating from surgery. The topic came around to the fact that “they” would be in our class.

I don’t remember if the “they” was judgmental or just a fact.  But I grew up in an era where the white adults would say “why, they’re just as good as we are.” It was a leftover attitude. They were trying.

I’m not so sure my first grade teacher was trying so hard when she told us one day “I can read Little Black Sambo today because Robert is not here.”

I am not making that up.

The Civil Rights Act was designed to make us all equal under the law, because while we didn’t mind rubbing it in King George’s face, we didn’t do so well with that “all men are created equal” thing.

Fifty years later, we still have a lot of work to do. Racism still exists. And it’s not just from the white people. It flows in all directions.

Now, let me say that I know I’m not a person of color. I know that is a perspective that I do not have. I can’t say if I’ve ever been given something or treated a certain way because I’m white. But I’ve never been denied something because of it either.

Still, being a southern, white, middle-class, Christian male does not make me a racist. It’s time to stop assuming that it does.

I went off on several tangents while writing this post. I stepped away a couple of times and came back and made some major edits because I didn’t want the point to be missed.

The Civil Rights Act was an important piece of legislation. It was very much needed. But it certainly didn’t solve the problem of racism in this country (don’t get me started about racism around the world, that’s another post).

Likewise LBJ’s War on Poverty and Nixon’s War on Drugs didn’t exactly meet their end goals either.

That’s because those things can’t be fixed by government. In fact they’re often made worse.

The legal protections afforded through the Civil Rights Act are good things. But the government can’t change our individual attitudes.

That’s up to you. And me.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood with LBJ for the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Some would say he was there with the rest of the Republicans, but that’s another story.

The year before he said in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Dr. King didn’t live to see that dream come true.

I hope that we will. No matter what the color.

 

 

 

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