50 years: Civil Rights Act of 1964 fueled change in America

“It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great president from another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. … Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really, it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1972 Civil Rights Symposium

WEDNESDAY, JULY 2: It seemed a distant goal when President John F. Kennedy, in June 1963, encouraged equal treatment of all Americans, but no American could have imagined the events that lay ahead for the country. And, just 13 months later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson would sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, changing American history by signing the Act just a few hours after its House approval. The Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in theaters, restaurants, hotels and other businesses; it banned discrimination in employment; it ended segregation in schools, libraries, swimming pools and other public places. (Read the full text of the Act here.)

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers also were prohibited from judging or discriminating against individuals because of their religion, and were required to accommodate an employee’s religious practice (unless it could be proven that doing so would create undue hardship for the employer). Americans could keep their chosen religion and their job.


Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years earlier, but in 1963, America was a land far from equality for all citizens. In June 1963, a House Resolution was introduced that would outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin—although at the time, it seemed yet a distant goal. The assassination of President Kennedy in November of 1963 made Johnson president, and Johnson urged Congress to “honor President Kennedy’s memory” by allowing passage of the civil rights bill. (Wikipedia has details.) Most experts agree that had Kennedy lived, the Civil Rights Act would never have been passed as early as 1964.

The route to passage was not easy, though, and a “Southern Bloc” staged a filibuster in the U.S. Senate that lasted 54 days, and the nation learned the enormous impact that the bill would have on current Southern culture. Yet with the combined efforts of numerous supporters, the bill was passed. In a nationally televised ceremony, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, in the East Room of the White House. (Read Johnson’s remarks, upon signing the Act, here.)


As is demonstrated in this article and slideshow from Huffington Post, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 spread far beyond America: The idea was inspiring—that those who work for justice will be supported, and bigotry can be overcome.

It is true—as many American leaders point out—that the idea that there would someday be an African-American president was unthinkable in the early 1960s. Nevertheless, in a landmark study in 2013, Pew researchers found that big achievement gaps remain between racial groups in the U.S.

In the OurValues project, Dr. Wayne Baker reported an entire five-part series on that Pew data, raising thought-provoking questions about these gaps. In the first part, Baker looked at the continuing gaps in income. Mid-week in that series, Baker also looked at Pew’s findings of gaps in Americans’ perceptions of fairness, based on race. Later, Baker quoted an address by President Obama on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Obama declared in part:

“And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call—this remains our great unfinished business.”

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Ushering in 50th year since Nobel Prize, Civil Rights Act

MONDAY, JANUARY 20: In August, the world marked 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s infamous “Dream” speech in Washington D.C.; today, on America’s celebration of his 85th birthday, the world looks toward two more monumental anniversaries in 2014: the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 50th anniversary of the granting of a Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. King.

Leaders of The King Center in Atlanta, Ga., focus their year’s theme on inspiring and educating young people to “Choose Nonviolence.” (Parents and teachers can educate children on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with help from Scholastic.)

Millions of children in elementary schools have grown up with this annual observance, but the holiday was only observed in all 50 states in the year 2000. Wikipedia has more of that history. In the long campaign for this holiday, a broad coalition of King supporters got a boost from Stevie Wonder with his 1981 song Happy Birthday. Wonder’s lyrics made the case for a national holiday:
You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration
‘Cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you
And I’m sure you would agree
It couldn’t fit more perfectly
Than to have a world party
On the day you came to be.

Eventually, 6 million signatures were collected in favor of such a holiday, which was signed into law by President Reagan in 1983. The first national observance was 1986, but some states resisted. South Carolina was the last hold out, but fell in line and gave state workers the holiday starting in 2000.


Americans already have been inspired by the 50th anniversary of the speech in Washington D.C. In our August coverage, we recalled, in part:

Caught in the passion of the moment and the 250,000 onlookers who had come to support the speakers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dropped his papers and ad-libbed a portion of his speech. Nearby, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Originally intended as “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Dr. King’s words now echo around the world. …  King quoted the Bible, Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, referenced the United States Constitution and current events, before sharing his dream with the crowd.


Events commence today from Boston (find events here) to Yosemite National Park (where admission is free today), and around the world.

King—and his long legacy in peacemaking—are a central focus of this year’s Interfaith Peacemakers Month, hosted as a part of ReadTheSpirit. In addition to a newly updated profile of King, the Peacemakers series also profiles inspiring men and women who were inspired by King. Today, you can read about Aung San Suu Kyi and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

This year, The King Center—a living memorial founded by Coretta Scott King and carried on by King’s children—sets focus on nonviolence. The Center has been busy preparing plans for this monumental year, which includes an elaborate 10-day birthday celebration. Last week, more than 1,500 K-12 students gathered at the King Center’s campus for engaging dialogues on nonviolence; college students were engaged on Jan. 17 with discussions on the impact of violence on campus and in the community. (A full schedule of events is available on the Center’s website.) The official theme for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2014, via The King Center, will be: “Remember! Celebrate! Act! King’s Legacy of Peace for Our World.”


On July 2, 1964, an act became law under the extremely wordy title: “An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.”

It’s far better known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Wikipedia has a substantial overview of the historic act, its passage and its many features. If you’re really fascinated with the twists and turns of this history, the best in-depth history of the act we’ve found online is part of a website about the legacy of U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois who played a crucial role in the final passage of the legislation.


On December 10, 1964, King accepted his Nobel lecture. The Nobel website maintains some terrific resources on King, including a video of his acceptance speech. The next day, on December 11, King delivered his Nobel lecture. In that talk, he said, in part:

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, “Let my people go.” This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.

He also pointed, in that lecture, to his growing conviction that an equal moral ill was the world’s widespread poverty, which the world’s wealthy were allowing to continue, King argued. He said in part:

The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for “the least of these”. Deeply etched in the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them. The wealthy nations must go all out to bridge the gulf between the rich minority and the poor majority.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)



United Nations Day: Work in ‘Partnerships for Global Progress’

“In a world that is more connected, we must be more united. On United Nations Day, let us pledge to live up to our founding ideals and work together for peace, development and human rights.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 24: Work toward Partnerships for Global Progress today, as UN member states commemorate the 68th anniversary of the day the United Nations Charter went into effect—otherwise known as United Nations Day. Though United Nations Day has been celebrated since 1948, it wasn’t until 1971 that the United Nations General Assembly recommended that the day be observed by members as a public holiday. Whether through volunteer services, a conference or an awareness campaign, make a difference today!

This year’s theme reflects Partnerships for Global Progress, illustrating that by working together, more can be achieved. (Get assistance for an event with the downloadable UN Day toolkit.)

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the majority of its signatories ratified the UN Charter on this date in 1945, and with that, the United Nations was created. The UN set out with a mission for its holiday: to “be devoted to making known to the peoples of the world the aims and achievements of the United Nations and to gaining their support.” (Wikipedia has details.)


Through the years, the United Nations has expanded from an organization that keeps global peace to one that works to improve the quality of life for the world’s citizens. In its history, the UN has been awarded two Nobel Peace prizes—one for UNICEF, the other for UN Peacekeeping—and has taken a head-on approach to the control of nuclear weapons.

The UN Environment Programme was established at the renowned 1972 UN Environment Conference, and the later Earth Summit claimed the title of “largest intergovernmental gathering in history.” In 2011, the UN admitted South Sudan as its 193rd Member State. (Access a detailed UN timeline here.)

Note: The UN’s World Development Information Day is also today, Oct. 24.

500: World marks Balboa’s first sighting of the Pacific Ocean in 1513

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25: It’s been 500 years since that fateful day when Vasco Nunez de Balboa, exhausted from days of hiking through tropical forests, stood atop a hillside and saw—for the first time—the bountiful waters of the Pacific Ocean. Although he certainly was not the first person to see the Pacific—millions of Pacific-rim people had seen the vast ocean down through the millennia—Balboa’s sighting was a unique milestone in world history.

Balboa’s impact had to do with who he was—a European—and how he reached the Pacific—overland in the “New World.” The legacy of Balboa’s generation of explorers is hotly contested today with many—even Columbus—charged with cruelty to native peoples and with spreading diseases that devastated the New World population. But these explorers also changed the planet—bringing products like potatoes back to Europe and bringing others like horses to the New World.

In general, Balboa is beloved to this day throughout Panama. He has been the center of activities during this, his 500th anniversary year. In 2013, Panama is also celebrating the anniversary of the opening of the first Catholic diocese on the mainland American continent. (Learn more from the National Catholic Register.)

Vasco Nunez de Balboa was born in 1475 in Spain. By age 25, news of Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the New World was circulating in Balboa’s homeland, and the young Spaniard set off on a voyage. His first venture was as part of Rodrigo de Bastidas’ expedition, when Balboa traveled to Hispaniola and set up a small farm. When the experiment wound up in failure, Balboa hid as a stowaway on another expedition, and—narrowly escaping abandonment once he was discovered—Balboa was kept on board for his knowledge of the region. (Wikipedia has details.) Danger ensued and Balboa prayed to the Virgin Mary; the first permanent settlement on mainland American soil was named after her. Three years later, Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean.


The Spanish Navy recently sent a training ship to Panama to take part in the ceremonies, processions and fireworks for Vasco Nunez de Balboa’s 500th anniversary, and while the conquistador was a native of Spain, his legacy is renowned throughout Panama. Multiple parks and streets throughout Panama are named after Balboa; monuments pay homage to his “discovery;” Panamanian currency is called the Balboa; Panama City’s main port bears his name. Wreath-laying ceremonies have been taking place in Panama at the numerous statues of Balboa, as the 500th anniversary loomed on the horizon.

A writer from the Smithsonian recently reported on his trek through the dense jungles and unforgiving heat of Panama with Panamanian presidential hopeful and environmentalist Juan Carlos Navarro, who names Balboa as “my childhood hero.” In that region, Balboa is credited with somewhat more humane policies toward indigenous tribes, compared with the records of other Europeans. Navarro says Panamanians look with favor upon the Spanish explorer. He “was the only one willing to immerse himself in the native culture,” explained Navarro, in the Smithsonian article. “In Panama, we recognize the profound significance of Balboa’s achievement and tend to forgive his grievous sins.” Though Santa Maria La Antigua no longer exists, the spot where he stood—and first saw the Pacific—is still there.

President Barack Obama, NASA and Navy praise Sally K. Ride on 30th anniversary of first American woman’s journey to space

“Sally inspired us to reach for the stars, and she advocated for a greater focus on the science, technology, engineering and math that would help us get there.”

-President Barack Obama

TUESDAY, JUNE 18: It’s the 30th anniversary of the morning America’s first woman rocketed into space: At age 32, Sally K. Ride blasted off aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Upward of 250,000 people came out to watch Ride take off, and following the famed space flight, Ride was featured on countless magazine covers and headlines. (Access photos at Space.com.) Three decades later, President Barack Obama will award a posthumous Presidential Award of Freedom to the doctor in astrophysics.

While Ride “broke the ultimate glass ceiling” during her infamous ride, she pushed on to become a physics professor at the University of California and to direct the university’s Space Institute. In 2001, Ride founded Sally Ride Science to provide classroom materials and professional development opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math. In particular, Sally Ride Science focuses on motivating young women to pursue science-related careers.

Women have broken many glass ceilings, but NASA’s ceiling was solid until 1983. “We all admire Dr. Ride, but I don’t know that everyone in the room appreciates fully and remembers fully the history of what she accomplished,” said Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the Smithsonian’s space history division who spoke at a May 17 event for the Sally Ride anniversary. (Watch part of the Smithsonian event, and read more, in this article.) Women had been working in space-related programs since the 1950s, but naysayers kept them from reaching outer space for decades. Following Ride’s breakthrough trip, 44 female American astronauts have flown into space.

Aside from Barack Obama’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, several other tributes will be made to Ride this year: NASA recently created a new internship program named after her; the EarthKAM science instrument on the International Space Station boasts her name; and the United States Navy’s first academic research vessel to be named for a woman is dedicated to Ride. The oceanographic ship is set for launch in 2015; a biography of Ride’s life is due out in 2014. (Read an article from the biographer at Parade.) A gala in Ride’s name took place at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts this spring.

Sally Ride died in July 2012 of pancreatic cancer. But, Sally Ride Science continues to thrive. Upon news of her death, thousands shared sentiments. (Check out the article here.) Tom Hanks put it this way on CNN’s Facebook page: “God Speed, Sally Ride. She aimed for the stars. Let’s all do the same.”

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)