In a special edition of the Kentucky Courier-Journal, Jin Hee Lee writes on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act that “The legacy of the Civil Rights Act and the civil rights movement, rests with all of us to ensure that the struggle for freedom and equality lives on.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 years ago was a monumental feat of bipartisan legislation during a crucial phase of American history. Only 10 years earlier, the United States Supreme Court denounced state-sanctioned racial segregation in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education. In the following years, untold numbers of American heroes risked their lives to end Jim Crow laws, with the moral conviction that “equality” is not a mere abstract term, but must necessarily be a lived experience. The Freedom Riders, the bus boycotters, the sitters in lunch counters — black and white, young and old — all were bonded by a common vision of an America that could, despite its flawed origins, embrace the equality and humanity of all its citizens.
The implementation of this vision came at a heavy cost, especially in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Act.
In the fall of 1962, federal troops were called to help James Meredith enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi, and the ensuing clash between state and federal authorities — and the violent, segregationist mob on the college campus — left two dead and dozens injured.
On June 12, 1963, Medger Evers, the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, was shot and killed in his driveway, carrying T-shirts from his car saying, “Jim Crow Must Go.”
A few months later, on Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four innocent, little girls.
And in June 1964, less than a month before the passage of the act, civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered for their efforts to register black voters as part of the Congress of Racial Equality’s “Freedom Summer” project.
In the face of such terror and brutality, as well as the immense bravery of countless civil rights activists, Republicans and Democrats came together to accomplish the extraordinary task of drafting and passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provided unprecedented protections against discrimination in accommodations, facilities, employment, education and federally funded programs.
It is telling, however, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood right behind President Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of the act because it would have been impossible without civil rights leaders.
Less than a year earlier, Dr. King and other civil rights luminaries led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a gathering of a quarter of a million people celebrating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and demanding the rights and protections that later became part of the Civil Rights Act.
A month after the march, Dr. King said: “The hundreds of thousands who marched in Washington marched to level barriers. They summed up everything in a word — NOW. What is the content of NOW? Everything, not some things, in the president’s civil rights bill is part of NOW.”
The moral imperative of “NOW” is no less urgent today than it was in 1964.
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