The summer of 2020 is a good time to ruminate upon the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as July 2nd marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of this significant legislation. The law originally outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex, and it was extended in June by the Supreme Court to include protections for LGBTQ citizens as well. In the ‘60s it represented a culminating moment in the history of the nonviolent protests of Black Americans because it helped dismantle de jure segregation. It was also a climax in the legislative battle against entrenched Southern Democrats. History books often simplify the passage of this bill into a discernible moment of completion in the classical phase of the civil rights movement. Racial segregation was declared illegal; thus, a primary goal of direct-action nonviolence had been met.
Yet, as the succeeding decades have demonstrated, the law has not purged the country of racism or even the vestiges of de facto racial segregation. In the speech delivered the day he signed the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson seemed to sense that a single law would not eliminate the racist mindset that permeated America. He hinted at the possibility of a longer struggle when he noted that freedom could “be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.” We have witnessed this year one way for the Civil Rights Act to be renewed and enlarged to include homosexual and transgender people and this is quite promising.
However, as the summer protests against police brutality have demonstrated, there is still much work to do to eliminate institutionalized racism in the U.S. Johnson pointed out that the Civil Rights Act represented “a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our States, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.” A law, no matter how morally sound, can only alter the outward trappings of racism like segregation signs and hiring policies, it cannot transform individual hearts. If there is no collective action coupled with moral courage to dismantle the status quo of white privilege and create something new and more egalitarian, then the poison of racism is not alleviated, it is only slightly abated. This is where we are today, half a century later. We have all drunk from springs poisoned by white supremacy, male dominance, and profit over people. These were the foundational practices of the United States from the earliest days of colonial settlement in North America. None of the rhetoric of natural rights, that emerged during the Revolutionary era, changed those basic practices. They are still the norm today.
And they will continue to be the norm until more people heed the call that Johnson made at the close of his speech. He urged “every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional man, every workingman, every housewife—I urge every American—to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people—and to bring peace to our land.” Only a united front of action such as suggested here will truly transform the nation and, in Johnson’s words, “close the springs of racial poison.” Every individual American must make a commitment to stand against racism every day in order for those poisoned springs to be closed for good. 2020 has already been a historic year. Let it be the year that the United States finally locates its moral consciousness and begins to systematically eliminate racism in individual hearts and across institutions with committed action. The pandemic has laid bare the extent of the poison in U.S. society. The only question now that remains is what will our generation do with this moment?