Home National news 60th Anniversary of Civil Rights Act: Reflecting on Progress and Persistent Challenges

60th Anniversary of Civil Rights Act: Reflecting on Progress and Persistent Challenges

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a champion for equity in education. Civil Rights Movement co-founder Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and his wife Mrs. Juanita Abernathy (not pictured) follow with Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the Abernathy children march on the front line, leading the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. The children are (left-right): Donzaleigh Abernathy in striped sweater, Ralph David Abernathy III, and Juandalynn R. Abernathy in glasses. Name of the White Minister in the photo is unknown. (Abernathy Family Photos/Wikipedia Commons)

As the United States commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the nation reflects on a transformative law that reshaped American society by prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The landmark legislation emerged from a period of intense struggle and demand for the fulfillment of the 14th Amendment’s promise of “equal protection of the laws.”

Due to widespread opposition to desegregation and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, President John F. Kennedy urged Congress to pass a comprehensive civil rights bill in June 1963. After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson, with crucial support from civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Clarence Mitchell, championed the bill’s passage.

On July 2, 1964, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibited discrimination in hiring, promoting, and firing, extending these protections to public accommodations and federally funded programs. It also strengthened the enforcement of voting rights and mandated the desegregation of schools.

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the nation’s benchmark civil rights legislation, and it continues to resonate in America,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. The Act dismantled “Jim Crow” laws upheld by the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which had deemed racial segregation constitutional under the “separate but equal” doctrine.

The Act’s impact has been profound and far-reaching. “It propelled a movement that was able to make major civil rights gains,” stated Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “It has not only changed the arc for Black people. It has changed the arc for women and for other people of color in a profound way.”

Maya Wiley, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, highlighted the tangible benefits of the Act, particularly in healthcare and education. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 added years, literally about three to four years, onto the life expectancy of Black people when healthcare had to open its once-segregated doors,” Wiley explained. The Act also significantly reduced segregation in Southern schools, benefiting both Black and white students.

Despite these advancements, the 60th anniversary comes amid concerns over recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings perceived as eroding civil rights protections, including affirmative action, legalized abortion, and diversity initiatives. Critics argue that the Court’s favorable ruling in former President Donald Trump’s immunity case further threatens American democracy. The ruling, which rejected Trump’s sweeping immunity claim but maintained protections for actions tied to presidential duties, has sparked intense debate about the boundaries of presidential power and accountability.

“Securing our civil rights remains the unfinished fight of our time,” President Joe Biden said in a proclamation commemorating the anniversary. “Our country is still facing attacks on some of our most fundamental civil liberties and rights, including the right to vote and have that vote counted and the right to live free from the threat of violence, hate, and discrimination. That is why my administration is remaining vigilant—fighting actively to protect the rights of every American.”

Biden emphasized his commitment to reversing the legacy of segregation and creating new opportunities for all Americans. “My administration is investing more money than ever in Black families and Black communities,” Biden asserted. “We are reconnecting historic business districts and neighborhoods cut off by old highways, redlining, and decades of discrimination and disinvestment. We have invested over $16 billion in historically Black colleges and universities, which will help raise the next generation of Black leaders. At the same time, we are creating good-paying jobs on which people can raise a family; making capital and loans for starting small businesses and buying homes more accessible; and making health insurance and prescription drugs more affordable.”

In popular memory, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was seen as a legislative response to the demands of the March on Washington. “Sixty years later, we must be honest: the federal minimum wage, indexed for inflation, is lower than it was in 1964,” said Rev. William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “What’s more, because the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby decision and Congress has failed to remedy it, we have less voting rights protections today than we did on August 6, 1965.”

Barber continued, “The celebration of historic wins alongside this egregious decay is a source of discontent among everyday Americans. But we have no time for despair. We are determined to channel discontent for a resurrection rather than an insurrection.”

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