The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the monumental 1964 Civil Rights Act in July, 1964 was accompanied by a wave of celebratory events back in April at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. President Obama gave the keynote address and three other living presidents, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton also gave their thoughts on the significance of the Act. They paid due homage to the profound impact the Act had in serving as a powerful wrecking ball that demolished the walls of legal segregation and ushered in an era of unbridled opportunities for many blacks. The changes are unmistakable today. Blacks are better educated, more prosperous, own more businesses, hold more positions in the professions, and have more elected officials than ever before.
Yet the towering racial improvements since Johnson put pen to the bill a half century ago masks a harsh reality. That is that the challenge and threats to civil rights 50 years later are, in some ways, more daunting than what Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders of that day faced.
When Johnson signed the bill, black leaders had already firmly staked out the moral high ground for a powerful and irresistible civil rights movement. It was classic good versus evil. Many white Americans were sickened by the gory news scenes of baton-battering racist Southern sheriffs, fire hoses, police dogs, and Klan violence unleashed against peaceful black protesters. Racial segregation was considered immoral and indefensible, and the civil rights leaders were hailed as martyrs and heroes in the fight for justice.
As America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots, campus takeovers, and anti-war street battles, the civil rights movement and its leaders fell apart, too. Many of them fell victim to their own success and failure. When they broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies, and universities, it was middle-class blacks, not the poor, who rushed headlong through them. As King embraced the rhetoric of the militant anti-war movement, he became a political pariah shunned by the White House, as well as mainstream white and black leaders.
King's murder in 1968 was a turning point for race relations in America. The self-destruction from within and political sabotage from outside of black organizations left the black poor organizationally fragmented and politically rudderless. The black poor, lacking competitive technical skills and professional training, and shunned by many middle-class black leaders, became expendable jail and street and cemetery fodder. Some turned to gangs, guns and drugs to survive.
A Pew study specifically released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington celebrations in August 2013 graphically made the point that the economic and social gaps between whites and African-Americans have widened over the last few decades despite massive spending by federal and state governments, state and federal civil rights laws, and two decades of affirmative action programs. The racial polarization has been endemic between blacks and whites on the George Zimmerman trial to just about every other controversial case that involves black and white perceptions of the workings of the criminal justice system.
A half century later, the task of redeeming the promise of the Civil Rights Act means confronting the crises of family breakdown, the rash of shamefully failing public schools, racial profiling, de facto Jim Crow housing segregation, the obscene racial disparities in the prison and criminal justice system, and the HIV/AIDS plague among blacks, the gut of affirmative action, and the full blown assault by the GOP on the Voting Rights Act. These are beguiling problems that define the racial battles today and these are the problems that King and the civil rights movement of his day only had begun to recognize and address. Civil rights leaders today also have to confront something else that civil rights leaders in 1964 did not have to face. They had the sympathy and goodwill of millions of whites, politicians, and business leaders in the peak years of the civil rights movement. Much of that goodwill has vanished in the belief that blacks have attained full equality. Things have regressed so much that there's much speculation that the 1964 Civil rights Act would have tough sledding getting through the heavily tea party influenced GOP controlled House today.
Then there's the reality that race matters in America can no longer be framed exclusively in black and white. Latinos and Asians have become major players in the fight for political and economic empowerment and figure big in the political strategies of Democratic and Republican presidential contenders. Today's civil rights leaders will have to figure out ways to balance the competing and sometimes contradictory needs of these and other ethnic groups and patch them into a workable coalition for change.
Still, civil rights leaders can draw strength from the courage, vision and dedication of those who battled for the 1964 Civil Rights Act's passage. They can and must continue to fight hard against the racial and economic injustices that still plague the nation fifty years after Johnson's landmark signing.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.