50 years ago this year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of this nation’s most important legislative acts, a law that drove significant social and cultural change in the half century since. Hard to believe it’s been half a century since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Johnson conferred in the Oval Office (above) and forged the partnership that made the Civil Rights Act possible.
Johnson was certainly no friend of civil rights when he first catapulted into the national spotlight as Senate Majority Leader in the 1950’s. A Texan who was an ardent leader of the southern segregationists, he began to change his point of view when he realized that defending segregation and the racism that supported the old southern code was not a winning electoral strategy. Even as Johnson began to change his views in favor of civil rights, John F. Kennedy, who became the Democratic presidential nominee in 1960, realized that a northern Democrat needed the southern bloc to win the presidency, so he asked Johnson to run as vice president. This odd-couple coalition carried the day in 1960 against Richard Nixon’s candidacy, and when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Johnson became president just only months after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.
President Johnson’s continuing transformation into a champion of civil rights was due in no small part to Dr. King’s leadership and advocacy, and the two forged a strong partnership to ensure passage of the Civil Rights Act, and later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Could such a unique political partnership cause such dramatic political, legislative, social and cultural change today?
On this anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday, we must pause to consider the state of The Dream of a truly just and equal society, and whether the courageous acts of civil disobedience and civil rights legislation would still be possible today. In 2014, at one level, we can say that we enjoy a more equal, more just, more color-blind society than at any point in the nation’s history. In many ways, the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement for African American citizens led to much broader civil rights protections for other minority groups, for women, for persons with disabilities or persons with different sexual orientation.
As a general legal principle, in 2014 our society generally seems to agree that discrimination against someone because of a personal characteristic is simply wrong.
On the other hand, in 2014 our national landscape remains fraught with peril for people who look different, speak differently, have different beliefs or less money than those who make and enforce the rules in certain locales. Immigration reform remains a dream deferred, and too many people who speak with accents or whose features appear to be different remain subject to arbitrary police stops, detention and other forms of official intimidation.
Even more problematic, just last year the Supreme Court affirmatively undermined the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by declaring unconstitutional its provisions requiring certain states with long histories of egregious voter abuses to get federal approval for changes in voting laws. By weakening the core protections of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court seemed to be giving aid and comfort to those jurisdictions that have enacted more onerous rules that prevent some people from voting. Among these rules, voter ID laws are the most egregious since they have the largest impact on poor people who are often disproportionately people of color. Just recently, such a law was declared unconstitutional in Pennsylvania. While the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the voter ID issue, it’s overall ruling on the Voting Rights Act appears as a rollback on protection for the rights of many citizens.
Five years ago, as President Barack Obama took the oath of office as the first African American president of the United States, some people declared that the U.S. had become a “post-racial” society. That was so much wishful thinking. A society that believes its history is over, that it does not need to be vigilant in protecting civil rights every single day, is a naive society that will soon suffer a repetition of history.
Reality tells us that racism remains a serious problem in too many places in our country, and protection for civil rights is always a challenge. However, the national willpower to engage this discussion seems weak. Leaders of the stature of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seem few.
The best way this nation can remember Dr. King is to resolve to keep his legacy of civil rights healthy and vibrant. We must be vigilant in the protection of rights for all.