Striving To Do Better On The Civil Rights Act 50th Anniversary

Monday, July 7, 2014

On July 2nd ,1964, then President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law an Act on Civil Rights after a tumultuous debate in the Eighty-Eighth Congress of the United States. The crux of this new law read: 

"An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes." 

While this was not the first nor last occasion Congress would seek to safeguard the Civil Rights of Americans, the 1964 Act was passed as the blood stained streets of Selma, Ala. still struck at heart of the nation's soul. Passage of the Act affirmed the tireless efforts of generations of Abolitionists and committed and dedicated civil rights groups such as the NAACP. The law meant equality and dignity in terms of citizenship, helped to secure the integrity of our electoral processes, began the process of eliminating racism and bigotry in our schools and in public accommodations, through the creation of the EEOC recognized the need for fair practices in employment and workplace standards, and mandated that any entity or agency that accepted Federal Funding must uphold Constitutional Rights.

Nevertheless, the magnitude of the passage of this law does not seem to resonate with present generations, and its' significance is often marginalized by so many today though it directly impacts every phase of our lives. We should often pause to reflect on the years of tireless advocacy and struggle that it took to achieve such a thing. 

It took a Declaration of Independence, because it said that, “We are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that amongst these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It took a Bill of Rights, because the Framers knew that in order for a democracy to live on our rights had to be solidly affirmed in our freedoms and principles. It took four bloody years of Civil War, because the nation could not survive one North, one South; one slave, one free; one fractious, and one united; we had to be one nation because, "a house divided against itself could not stand." When Jim Crow laws rolled back the gains of the Civil War, the NAACP,  NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Civil Rights community and concerned citizens waged a decades long struggle to ensure fairness in public accommodations, equality in schools and in the workplace, and integrity at the ballot box, and this was first realized when Brown v. Board (1954) struck down Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). It would take acts of Civic Engagement and Civil Disobedience as the general public participated in lunch counter demonstrations, freedom rides, and public marches which culminated in the 1963 National March on Washington. It would take courage by our Presidents and members of Congress to do what was right for the nation, and many paid a heavy political price because they chose to do what was right. All of these things meant the Act was necessary. 

And as we pause to remember this great moment of history, and note other acts like it, we have several calls for action. First, we must protect the integrity of our elections, including guarding against acts of disenfranchisement and any actions that will deny or infringe upon the right to vote, including voter id laws, minority vote dilution, and in redistricting, which are threatening the voting integrity of African-Americans, minorities, and the poor. 

We must have fairness and equality in our schools because there are inadequacies in funding, an achievement gap that focuses on high stakes testing and not the true needs of students, and a school to prison pipeline that through zero tolerance policies is condemning our students to lives of mediocrity. For these reasons, we repeat our calls for adequate funding across the county, more minority teacher recruitment and retention, and a trade and vocational school in the inner city.

Recently, we have waged a campaign in Criminal Justice that advocates Restorative over Retributive Justice through rehabilitation, reentry, and redemption. To further balance the scales of justice, there is a need for more African Americans and minorities throughout all sectors of the legal community, including judgeships, lawyers and legal counsel, and in the public defenders office, whose budget continues to be slashed exponentially. 

Finally, we must have a restoration of civility in government and politics. The African American community was outraged that the Hamilton County government allowed the presence of the NSM in the heart of the city; recently, one local politician compared others as "worse than cooties;" and the outside interference and acts of intimidation and malice displayed during the Volkswagen vote were disheartening,distressing and disingenuous. We must strive to be a better society than this; our principles and freedoms demand that we be better than this.

As we commemorate this 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one sole fact rings true, and that is that our society has not reached a place where race, class, or gender aren't predominant variables that effect the welfare and livelihood of tens of thousands of our residents, and by virtue, we all have more work to do in ensuring the spirit of the act lives on as we embark upon the great charge of democracy, building a more perfect union. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP takes this time to commemorate the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a pillar of our democracy, and eternally hopes we will all see a day when we truly have overcome. 

Eric Atkins
Secretary for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP

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