Because so much that shaped America happened during the 1960s, it seems that we’re going through one 50th anniversary commemoration after another.
The one Wednesday deserves special attention: 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Right Act of 1964, the most sweeping legislation of its kind since Reconstruction a century earlier. It banned racial discrimination in hotels, theaters, restaurants and other public accommodations, as well as many workplaces, and gave the federal government new powers to enforce the law.
So much has changed that it can be difficult to comprehend what our nation was like back then – and just how necessary the law really was. For those of us too young to remember, or not born yet, we have to go to the history books or watch documentaries, such as CNN’s new one as part of its “The Sixties” series.
You can even be reminded by reading sympathetic editorials supporting the act, such as the one The Sacramento Bee published the day after Johnson signed the bill. It refers to “the Negro” and “the white man” – jarring to the modern ear.
Word choice aside, the main points are as valid as ever. For example: “No law can make the white man and the Negro love each other. Neither through legal strictures or judicial decree or executive order can this be done. But the civil rights legislation we now have on the books does not try to legislate love. It merely sets up regulations to govern behavior and to make more than rhetoric the preachment that here, if in no other land, there is equal opportunity.”
Public sentiment, particularly outside the South, had started to shift on matters of race after Americans saw Bull Connor use fire hoses and dogs on peaceful protesters in Birmingham in April and May 1963 and heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech before tens of thousands – black and white – who marched on Washington in August 1963.
Even then, it took Johnson, a son of the South, using all his considerable skills at cajoling and strong-arming to overcome a filibuster by recalcitrant Southern senators and push the bill through.
Read or listen to Johnson’s televised speech to the country 50 years ago Wednesday night, and his powerful words still resonate and inspire.
“We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights,” he said.
“We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings – not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin. The reasons are deeply embedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand – without rancor or hatred – how all this happened.
“But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
Fifty years later, America is a better place, yet still struggling with truly equal rights – for gays and lesbians, for instance – in a far more diverse nation. If we’re honest, there’s more work yet to do to form a more perfect union.