Fifty years ago this summer Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that has redefined American society. Given our current era of a barely functioning Congress, it is hard to imagine how the law managed to be enacted. Certainly, the nation was no less culturally divided; indeed, probably more so then than now. By comparison, the issues at stake in the Affordable Care Act, our current source of legislative gamesmanship, seem rather tame. Nevertheless, something was present in the American character at the time that allowed a broad cross-section of society to see the need for a complete reordering of the way Americans lived.
It is worth remembering and recognizing the leadership President Johnson and many members of Congress exercised in passing the Civil Rights Act in the face of strong opposition from many of their constituents. These were not politicians focused on the next election; these were leaders trying to do what was right for the country.
“The transformation of the United States in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, passed fifty years ago this summer, has been sweeping and meaningful.”
Throughout American history, the law has been an agent of change. Sometimes it has led a hesitant culture, as in the case of racial desegregation, and other times it has confirmed a change that the culture has broadly embraced, as we now are seeing with same-sex marriage.
In the case of racial segregation, the choice to build a nation while preserving a controversial system of race-based chattel slavery created some remarkable compromises and Faustian bargains around the meaning of core principles in the Constitution. The carnage and human devastation of the Civil War rid the nation of slavery, but the perceived inferiority of people of African descent remained a deeply ingrained part of the American consciousness and has proved to be something much more difficult to eradicate. The Civil Rights Act followed close to a century of de jure and de facto racial segregation in American society based on the physical perception or actual knowledge of some traceable African ancestry. Vestiges of that apartheid-like system continue to haunt American life today, but the changes wrought since the passage of the Civil Rights Act have been extraordinary.
In a response to a question about diversity at an admitted students event at BC Law this past spring, one of my faculty colleagues remarked that although there was more work to be done, it was worth noting that BC Law was a school led by an African American dean, in a city (Newton) with an African American mayor, in a state with an African American governor, in a nation with an African American president. All of this would have been impossible fifty years ago, and hard to imagine for many years thereafter.
The transformation of the United States in the wake of the Civil Rights Act has been sweeping and meaningful, not only for African Americans, but for the many groups who existed on the periphery of American society for most of the nation’s history. So, let’s ignore the current media fixation with the boorish behavior of the owner of a basketball team or the ravings of a Nevada cattle rancher and celebrate the courage and vision of the men and women of the Civil Rights movement who, despite much personal risk to themselves, had enough faith in this nation and its people to challenge their fellow citizens to embrace dignified participation in the life of the community for all of us.
Photograph by Suzi Camarata