Independence Day is around the corner, and we’re in a giddy mood here in the Neighborhood. It’s fitting that on the day that the Second Continental Congress passed the resolution calling for independence, another piece of paper almost equally important came into being.
Today is the anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Coupled with its partner, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, these bills were the culmination of decades of struggle to extend the Revolution’s promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to every American, regardless of race or gender. It outlawed segregation in public places, in employment, in schools, in housing, in government and in politics, effectively invalidating the infamous “Jim Crow” laws that kept people of color as second class citizens since the Civil War.
This legislation, the brainchild of John F. Kennedy, could not have been enacted without years of struggle. Groups such as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress for Racial Equality had clamored for federal action on segregation since the shameful Plessy v. Ferguson case legitimized “separate but equal” in 1896. W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others brought the struggle to public attention. Lyndon Johnson, who knew he would alienate his southern base in enacting this bill, nonetheless made sure this legacy of his predecessor succeeded.
The Civil Rights Act was not without its problems. It did not initially include women–“sex” discrimination was put in as a cynical measure to ensure defeat. Nor was the bill very direct in its methodology to enforce the legislation. Title II of the act, which “encouraged” desegregation of public schools and empowered the Attorney General to enforce it, would prove especially problematic in the 1970s and 1980s. “Forced” busing of students to maintain racial quotas led to ugly rioting and disturbances in Boston and other localities. Finally, the desegregation of employment has often been a crutch for the hiring of non-qualified personnel based simply on race.
Yet in spite of these setbacks, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a watershed in our history. Many see the bill as the end of the civil rights movement, although its implementation and focus would cause conflict well into our own time. It finally codified into law the true meaning of Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal.” For the first time in our history, the promise and ideals of the Revolution would extend to all Americans.
Because of the Civil Rights Act, July 4 is Independence Day for all of us.