The Civil Rights Act, 50 years later
Last week, President Obama stood in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the momentous legislation that made outlawed discrimination of persons based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. President Obama spoke in personal terms: “I have lived out the promise of L.B.J.’s efforts,” he said.
But he also hinted at the fact that the problems addressed by the 1964 legislation are far from solved. “History doesn’t have to move forward,” he said. “History can move backwards, or sideways.” It leads us to the question of where we currently stand in history. Are we backwards? Or sideways? Or have we moved forward since the Civil Rights Act became law?
This piece over at CNN makes the argument that, if the Civil Rights Act came into being today, it would most likely not pass into law. This is not because this Congress is more racist than the Congress was in 1964. (Point in fact: More Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act in 1964 than Democrats, though it was signed into law by a Democratic president. The split was along geographic - not party - lines.) Instead, the CRA would probably not pass because of the way that television, rhetoric, and money are being used in the political system today that were not a factor in 1964. Elected officials were more free to take political risks, which means that there was more room for collaboration.
But the Civil Rights Act did pass, thanks to Democrats and Republicans reaching across the aisle and deciding that this was a bill worth writing into law. They decided that the racism written into U.S. law was no longer an acceptable way for this country to function, and they decided to move the country forward. So where are we today?
Today we have a gutted Voting Rights Act, another of L.B.J.’s landmark legislative efforts. We also have what feels like an ever-expanding income gap. Immigration reform is gaining momentum as a movement, but there seems to be very little legislative forward motion. Our prisons are overcrowded, with incarceration rates for young black men far exceeding the rate of white men.
Civil rights, voting rights, cyclical poverty - all of these problems are more than just political roadblocks or sound bites. Ensuring civil and voting rights for all citizens of this country means taking the first step of acknowledging the inherent value of each person regardless of what they look like or where they come from. L.B.J. set the legislative wheel in motion, to a certain extent, when he signed the Civil Rights Act. It is in our interest as Catholics to continue to advocate for the full humanity and dignity of all people in this country, particularly those who count as the least of these.
Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.