Monday, June 30, 2014
Wednesday, July 2, marks the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The title of this post comes from playwright Robert Schenkkan's op-ed in yesterday's LATimes examining the president's subsequent efforts to enforce the hard-won law. He writes:
Jim Crow began to die, in part because LBJ well understood that passing laws was one thing and enforcing them quite another. Just as he had been determined to muscle the bill through Congress, Johnson was determined to see the law carried out by every executive power at his command.
Title II (public accommodations) of the act overturned state and local segregation laws, and the Supreme Court helped by upholding its application to the private sector through the commerce clause.
There had been chilling resistance in some quarters. In Jonesboro, La., that summer, the public library and swimming pool remained off-limits to blacks, and when local youths protested, 40 of them, and some of their parents, were arrested. To drive the point home, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through the black neighborhood in full regalia, carrying guns, led by a sheriff's patrol car.
Both sides began to arm themselves, and a very real race war was only averted by a federal injunction and the personal intervention of administration officials, including Humphrey, who by then was vice president.
Title VII (workplace discrimination) created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Women had been given special protection under the new law, not out of any moral imperative but as a poison-pill amendment introduced by Virginia Rep. Howard W. "Judge" Smith, who hoped that Northern senators sensitive to union concerns would not support a bill that granted women equal rights. He was wrong. And to everyone's surprise, Title VII would profoundly alter the legal and cultural landscape for women as well as blacks.
Title VI (discrimination in government-funded activities) was even more immediately successful. Swift directives from the White House to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to cease giving federal dollars to segregated hospitals transformed facilities overnight. Where moral suasion had failed, the threat of defunding worked wonders.
President Johnson was determined to see the [Civil Rights Act] carried out by every executive power at his command.
Similarly, a quick ruling by U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel announced the withholding of federal funds ($4 billion) from school districts in 17 long-segregated states. In one year, there were more public school desegregation commitments than had been achieved over the previous decade. To ensure this was more than lip-service, the Office of Education developed objective, quantifiable measures to evaluate progress.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow. Six days later, Watts erupted in violence, the first in a series of urban riots as the long-simmering frustration of blacks trapped in city slums sought release. At the same time, the white backlash and subsequent political realignment that LBJ had predicted was already underway.
The South, once solidly Democratic, would become a Republican stronghold. And the civil rights movement would meet its Waterloo not in Southern cities but in Boston and Chicago, where Northerners would discover that the limits of their racial tolerance ended in their own neighborhoods. Politicians who could no longer get away with using the vilest excesses of racial language communicated in coded but comfortable phrases like "law and order" and the "intrusive federal government."
Today, even after the election of a black president, men and women of color still suffer disproportionally against almost every measure of American life. So how should we feel about the 1964 Civil Rights Act? We should feel proud of an achievement that brought us closer to the founding ideals of this country. We should feel humbled by the sacrifice of millions of people over decades of hard and painful work to bring that change about. And we should feel challenged because the work is not yet complete.