Anniversaries allow us to cut up history into discrete packages for analysis and comparison, which is why the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act was a noteworthy moment.
It was on July 2, 1964, that President Lyndon Johnson gathered with the bipartisan leaders of Congress in the Rotunda of the Capitol to sign the historic law. It was there on Wednesday that today’s congressional leaders gathered to commemorate the signing, and reporter Todd Purdum of Politico has said it was an awkward moment.
Purdum raises the question whether today’s Congress could have managed to pass the Civil Rights Act, and he suspects the answer is no. And yet in the sweep of our history, it is easy to recognize the passage of the act as a landmark that has enabled broad positive changes. Why has so much that is good engendered so much that is bitter and negative?
It is important to remember what the Civil Rights Act achieved. From the period following the Civil War all the way up to the 1960s a legal regime of white supremacy dominated the South, and elsewhere in the country discrimination on the basis of color was still legal. Terror ruled in many places, where black people could be arrested arbitrarily and sent to factories or farms or lynched with impunity.
The Civil Rights Act removed the legal underpinnings of discrimination, forbidding public accommodations from refusing service, which ended the whole system of a separate and unequal society. Twenty-seven of the 33 Republican senators supported the Civil Rights Act, which was crucial to its passage. That’s because Democrats from the South remained mostly opposed (with the notable exception of President Johnson). Republicans at the time remained the party of Lincoln, and the Democrats of the South were the party of apartheid.
The great shift that followed transformed the parties. All the legislatures in all the states of the Confederacy are now controlled by Republicans, and many of them have taken steps to try to make voting more difficult for African-Americans. It used to be that each party represented its own unique liberal-conservative coalition. Now the parties are more distinctly conservative and liberal.
And yet despite persistent racism and reluctance by many to embrace the victories of the civil rights movement, enormous progress has occurred in the past 50 years, and not only on race. Broad attitudes about fairness and equality in the nation have taken hold so that other minorities, too, have gained greater social acceptance and a basis for the continuing struggle. Gay rights, women’s rights, Latino rights, immigrant rights — these are not fringe causes. They are a platform endorsed by perhaps a majority of Americans. That is a huge change.
It doesn’t mean that resistance and struggle have vanished, but it does mean that the cause of equal rights has come into the mainstream of American history. It may be that the Republican leaders, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, had trouble making themselves mouth the words of “We Shall Overcome,” as Purdum reported. But they had to show up for the commemoration.
All nations consist of diverse peoples and a stew of historic resentments and fears that simmers and must always be countered by the continuing awareness of what is just and fair. The presidency of Barack Obama itself may have opened the door to a wider understanding of our history. A recent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic magazine demonstrated the enormous social, political and economic cost endured by African-Americans through the decades of the 20th century, which put them at a disadvantage from which they still suffer. The Coates article represents the kind of information that is making its way into the mainstream, like a surge of antibodies ready to combat the lingering virus of racism that still infects the body politic.
The signing of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago was a turning point in a struggle that was woven into the history of the nation at the beginning. And 50 years later, the struggle continues.
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