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

Black-and-white photo of President Lyndon Johnson sitting at a desk in the White House, signing a bill, surrounded by men in suits, other signers of the Act

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

FROM LINCOLN—TO JOHNSON

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.)

Black-and-white photo of Barack Obama in suit, looking at camera, flag on pole in background

Official portrait of President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FIFTY YEARS LATER:
ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND OBSTACLES

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.)

Juneteenth unites with 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

Black-and-white photos of small group of African Americans in fancy, turn-of-the-century dress

Attendees of a Juneteenth celebration in Texas, June 19, 1900. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, JUNE 19: Two pivotal events in history, inextricably intertwined, converge today: It’s the 50th anniversary year of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Juneteenth.

Labeled as the “single most important piece of legislation passed in 20th-century America” by Clay Risen, author of The Bill of the Century, the Civil Rights Act did, undoubtedly, change the future of America in countless ways. Yet what is less talked about is how many of the youth involved in demonstrations and campaigns for the Civil Rights Act likened their challenges to those of their ancestors: Student demonstrators in Atlanta in the early 1960s wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and Nineteenth, has come to be celebrated in almost every state in America, with cultural festivals, summer fairs and delicious foods. Many associate Juneteenth with freedom, African American achievement and a deep respect for all groups and cultures.

Did you know? Most early Juneteenth gatherings had no place to call their own, so church grounds often offered space for celebrations.

The events of Juneteenth began in 1865—two years after President Abraham Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite the announcement of freedom for slaves in 1863, many slaves in the the South had seen little difference in their day-to-day duties. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that the situation changed in Galveston, Texas. On that fateful day, Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston and publicly stressed that the enslaved were now free.

As Major General Gordon Granger and Union soldiers arrived, on June 19, 1865, and Granger read aloud the General Order Number 3: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Freed men and women celebrated in the streets at General Granger’s proclamation: Some immediately packed their bags to head North, while others stuck around in their newly freed homeland. (Read more at Juneteenth.com.) Some traveled to other Southern states to reunite with family members. Juneteenth celebrations began just one year after General Granger’s announcement, on church grounds and by freedmen who had pooled their money to purchase land for the parties. Juneteenth festivities reigned strong for decades, and despite a decline in the early 20th century, a resurgence emerged after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 1968 March to Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia has details.)

Texas marked Juneteenth as an official state holiday in 1980; as of last year, 43 U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as either a state holiday or a special event.

JUNETEENTH:
BARBECUES, RODEO
AND STRAWBERRY SODA POP

Dress, food and other Juneteenth customs were cemented from the start, as the earliest freedmen—who had never had experienced the freedom to dress as they pleased—would don fine attire for Juneteenth celebrations. Rodeo, fishing, barbecue and games of baseball have long been popular activities for Juneteenth; speakers and prayer services have inspired crowds in between the festive events. Food has always been center of Juneteenth celebrations, too, with specialty dishes and, in particular, strawberry soda pop. In some places, the Emancipation Proclamation is read and songs are recited, such as Lift Every Voice and Sing and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Miss Juneteenth pageants have become popular in recent years.

RECOMMENDED ON TV:
‘FREEDOM SUMMER’

PBS American Experience Freedom SummerMark your calendar now for the June 24 debut of the PBS American Experience documentary, Freedom Summer, which tells the dramatic story of the tidal wave of college students, clergy, musicians and other activists who converged on Mississippi in the fateful summer that also included the murders of three of those students. PBS has set up this website to learn more about the documentary.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm previewed the documentary and writes:

“If you think you know the story of the civil rights movement and the milestones reached in 1964—think again! Few chapters of the civil rights movement are as misunderstood as what happened in the deep South in the summer of 1964. For example: A terrible 1988 feature film, Mississippi Burning, gave the impression that the FBI roared into Mississippi to solve the murders of three college students in that fateful summer.

“In fact, the FBI was skeptical of helping at all, as this new PBS documentary proves as it plays a few archival audio clips involving President Lyndon Johnson and FBI director Herbert Hoover. Hoover dismissed the civil rights activists as ‘Communists’ and Johnson wanted to suppress the explosion of activity that arose in Mississippi in 1964.

“This documentary includes some amazing ‘finds’ in terms of the photos, film clips, audio clips and other archival materials brought to light for viewers. One of the most indelible portions of the two-hour documentary is the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, who every American should learn about in our public school history classes. This is must-see TV—filling in a wealth of essential stories about the hard-fought journey toward civil rights that continues to this day.”

IN THE NEWS:
ANNIVERSARY OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hold hands and wave at crowds while walking down a street

Many have pointed out that without the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Barack Obama would not have been elected. Above, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave at crowds during the inaugural parade. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Events have been in full swing for the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act for months, as is evidenced by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit in April. Recently, former President Bill Clinton spoke on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the University of Minnesota, where he relayed its vital significance both in history and today—including the opinion that neither he nor President Barack Obama would have been elected without it. (Click here to read the contents of the Civil Rights Act.)

From PBS to Fox News to The Wall Street Journal, the Civil Rights Act anniversary has been making national headlines. In this article, it’s pointed out that although the Civil Rights Act seems an inevitable passage today, that was hardly the case 50 years ago: in fact, before Lyndon B. Johnson moved into presidency, little was expected on the Civil Rights front. It was the combined pressure from thousands of men and women nationwide that finally made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a reality.