By Clifford Buttram
Special to Frost Illustrated
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is arguably the most important piece of legislation created in the United States. While the signing of the Act and the implementation and enforcement of its laws still reverberate today, we tend to forget that the Act was one of human, equal and constitutional rights. In so many aspects and functions of American society up to 1964, the country essentially practiced a form of apartheid in many states; a society of separate, but unequal status based on race, color, and a hierarchical system of separatism. As a global example of democracy, the United States could not longer afford to be cast as hypocritical in enforcing a Constitution for only 80 percent of its population. The remaining 20 percent were birthright American citizens who were denied their human rights to live and function in a free society.
Although the Civil Rights Act was passed on July 2, 1964, many citizens do not realize that the bill was sent to Congress in November 1963 by President Kennedy. His assassination days later changed the political landscape and timeline for implementation. The bill that was intended to be introduced into law in January 1964 was argued, refined, and adjusted by Congress and President Johnson in the first six months of that year. The result was the singular and most definitive legislation we know as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 designed to create a more fair and equal American society.
To commemorate the signing of that historic piece of legislation, the University of Saint Francis, the MLK Club, and Frost Illustrated invite the public to join a community interactive discussion on this topic. It will occur on 50 years to the day (July 2) of the signing, at the Old Scottish Rite building from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The period of 1955-1964 was ten years of struggle, violence, intimidation, and coercion. However, it was also a period of profound leadership and determination by civil rights leaders and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Within that time period, Dr. King led a movement for human, equal, and constitutional rights unseen in this country until 1964 or since. The continual pressure exerted on the federal government by the Movement to recognize all citizens as equal began to culminate in 1963. The movement had reached a crescendo with sit-ins, speeches, and marches to include MLK in Fort Wayne in June, MLK in Detroit, the August March on Washington, Freedom Riders, and the increasing hate and violence of the most extreme levels of racism in Mississippi and Alabama. However, it was the public debacle of police using fire hoses and dogs on American citizens in Birmingham, for all the country and world to see, that ultimately drove President Kennedy to plead to America that the time had come for equality and change. On June 12, 1963, President Kennedy conducted a prime time news cast to the American people about the travesty of segregation, how it had become a moral problem for America, and why society had to change for the better. That same night, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi. The origins of the 1964 passage were laid in the violent, turbulent, and transcending year of 1963.
To note that importance and depth of the Act, listed below are the 11 Titles which outline the Act:
I. Barred unequal application of voter registration.
II. Outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex in public access areas.
III. Prohibited denying access to public areas.
IV. Encouraged the desegregation of schools and increased enforcement of this by the Attorney General.
V. Expanded the Civil Rights Commission founded in 1957.
VI. Outlawed discrimination by agencies that receive federal funds.
VII. Prohibits discrimination by covered employees on basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
VIII. Required compilation of voter registration and voting data.
IX. Made it easier to move civil rights cases from state to Federal courts.
X. Established Community Relations Service
XI. Provided a defendant accused of contempt of these titles with a jury trial.
(Quoted from the Civil Rights Act of 1964)
These titles or provisions to the Act have created a more productive and fair society in the past 50 years. While we know that every aspect of society is not equal, all citizens are now offered a more level field to compete, prosper, and live within our society. As we remember the signing of this Act 50 years ago, it is still difficult to imagine the level of separatism that existed in this country. As someone born in the 60s, I certainly cannot personally attest to the struggle or living conditions at the time, but we all have parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and other written and oral histories to place the era in context with today’s society. We all have a perspective or opinion of the era, the Civil Rights movement, and how we live today, but the increasingly difficult task for all of us is to place into context the true meaning of the Movement and the Act.