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EDITORIAL: The Civil Rights Act, 50 Years Later

4/16/2014, 3 p.m.
One of the good things about anniversary observances and related celebrations is that they offer us a vantage point from ...
President Obama gives the keynote address at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas, on April 10.

One of the good things about anniversary observances and related celebrations is that they offer us a vantage point from which to gauge our progress as a country and as a people.

For three days last week, President Barack Obama, three former presidents, retired and active politicians, civil rights stalwarts, members of civil society and others, gathered at the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Johnson, who succeeded slain President John F. Kennedy in Nov. 1963, took up Kennedy’s mantle and using experience, savvy, guile, and his legendary powers of arm-twisting and persuasion pushed through the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the historic Voting Rights Act in 1965.

As Obama explained in his well-received remarks, “He (Johnson) was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required. He could wear you down with logic and argument, he could horse trade and he could flatter.”

The Civil Rights bill made equality for minorities and women the law of the land. Title II outlawed discrimination in places of public accommodation, including movie theaters, concert halls, stadiums, motels, hotels and restaurants. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers to voting by African Americans.

Johnson, as was the U.S., was buffeted by the winds of social change as the civil rights movement gained momentum, an army of activists took to the streets and used a range of instruments to force the country to come to terms with its racist past. Through Johnson’s efforts, the country began to slowly embrace and accept first racial, then gender equality.

When an LBJ aide advised him against fighting to attempt to secure a legislative victory in civil rights, for fear of his embracing "lost causes," Johnson is said to have told him, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"

LBJ’s vision and tenacity and his ability to cobble together a coalition of Northern Democrats and moderate Republicans help put America on a different course from the one it has traveled from 1617 forward.

Obama echoed the sentiment of a number of speakers that Americans are heirs and beneficiaries of his legacy.

What’s telling is that even though Johnson signed both pieces of legislation, the laws’ opponents and fiercest critics have never rested in their efforts to reverse the gains born of the legislation. In fact, historians and other observers note that Johnson saw a backlash in the polls when in 1966 Democrats lost Congressional seats and lawmakers who supported Johnson began to push back against approving money needed to pay for the raft of programs of the Great Society.

Debate about the stage of race relations, discrimination and access for non-whites in this country continues unabated with some saying the glass is half full, while others insist that little has changed. It is a reality that in 2014, blacks are no longer relegated to the back of the bus, barred from movies and restaurants and prohibited from any number of activities that were normal for the mainstream.

Yet, as longtime Civil Rights activists like Congressman John Lewis, Julian Bond and others have always warned, no one should relax, assume the battle is over and become complacent.

As Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page said in a recent column, almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Civil Rights bill, the battle against it began. Last year, the Supreme Court invalidated a key section of the bill, with the majority arguing that enough had changed to question the bill’s continued efficacy. Lewis and Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner are working together to develop legislation to continue the protections the bill offered.

Going forward, vigilance is the key.