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July 2, 2014 0

Thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

 

by Abra­ham H. Fox­man
National Direc­tor of the Anti-Defamation League

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in The Huff­in­g­ton Post on July 2, 2014

Fifty years ago today, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don Baines John­son signed into law the land­mark Civil Rights Act of 1964. With the stroke of a pen, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment blot­ted out “sep­a­rate but equal,” put the power of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice behind deseg­re­ga­tion of pub­lic schools, and laid the foun­da­tion for racial, reli­gious and gen­der equal­ity in the workplace.

Despite the enor­mity of the change it ush­ered in, Rev. Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. hailed the leg­is­la­tion not as a vic­tory but as the “dawn of a new hope” and a “cool serene breeze in a long hot sum­mer” of racial oppres­sion. Dr. King rec­og­nized that the law did not mark the end of the strug­gle, but the begin­ning of fun­da­men­tal change.

A half-century later, the Civil Rights Act still stands as both a sig­nal achieve­ment and a reminder of the work that lies ahead for the attain­ment of true and last­ing equal­ity. The law dis­man­tled the edi­fice of “sep­a­rate but equal” in its most odi­ous form.

Today, the notion of a “Col­ored Only” drink­ing foun­tain seems alien and unthink­able. The Civil Rights Act changed more than the law; it changed atti­tudes. The recent down­fall of L.A. Clip­pers owner Don­ald Ster­ling demon­strates that the strongest enforcer of civil rights remains the court of pub­lic opinion.

In spite of the great progress that has already been achieved and the poten­tial for more, the promise of the Civil Rights Act has yet to be fully real­ized. The law autho­rized the Attor­ney Gen­eral to sue pub­lic schools for fail­ing to heed the charge of Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion to deseg­re­gate “with all delib­er­ate speed.” Today, an esti­mated 74 per­cent of African-American stu­dents and 79 per­cent of Latino stu­dents attend majority-minority schools.

Edu­ca­tion equity remains largely elu­sive. Less than one-third of schools serv­ing the most African Amer­i­can and Latino stu­dents offer cal­cu­lus. One-quarter of those schools do not even offer alge­bra II, 60 per­cent have no physics classes, and one-third do not offer chem­istry classes of any kind. Sixty years after Brown and fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, the work to close the edu­ca­tion equity gap continues.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act required employ­ers to pro­vide male and female work­ers equal pay for equal work. But a sub­stan­tial pay gap per­sists. The first piece of leg­is­la­tion signed into law by Pres­i­dent Obama–the Lilly Led­bet­ter Fair Pay Act–makes it eas­ier for women to secure back-pay when they suf­fer years of unequal com­pen­sa­tion. In April, how­ever, another bill would have banned com­pa­nies from retal­i­at­ing against women for seek­ing equal pay. It was blocked in the Sen­ate. And, in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court made it harder for female work­ers to band together to sue their employer for unequal pay, mak­ing it nearly impos­si­ble for women to wage costly lit­i­ga­tion bat­tles on their own.

For mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity, who are not explic­itly included in the Civil Rights Act, mon­u­men­tal change is afoot. Today, in most states, work­ers can still be fired or denied a job sim­ply for being gay. But in the com­ing days, we hope and expect Pres­i­dent Obama will amend an exist­ing exec­u­tive order bar­ring employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion by fed­eral con­trac­tors to add sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity to the list of pro­tected categories–a move that will extend work­place pro­tec­tions to approx­i­mately twenty per­cent of the nation’s work­force. The order could pave the way for leg­is­la­tion that would pro­hibit employ­ers from dis­crim­i­nat­ing against LGBT individuals.

Dr. King famously said, “The arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends towards jus­tice.” The Civil Rights Act changed the face of the nation, bend­ing the arc sharply on July 2, 1964.

But much work remains. On the 50-year anniver­sary of its pas­sage, let us reded­i­cate our­selves to the task of build­ing a fairer, more just society.

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June 18, 2014 0

Honoring The Memory Of Murdered Civil Rights Workers

June 21 marks the 50th anniver­sary of the mur­ders of three young civil rights work­ers who trav­elled to Mis­sis­sippi for “Free­dom Sum­mer,” to help African Amer­i­can res­i­dents under­stand their con­sti­tu­tional rights and reg­is­ter to vote.  Fac­ing deep insti­tu­tional racism, fewer than five per­cent of the 500,000 black adults in Mis­sis­sippi were then reg­is­tered to vote.  Michael “Mickey” Schw­erner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Good­man, 20, knew they were risk­ing their lives for their cause. murdered-civil-rights-workers

On June 21, 1964, after they had inves­ti­gated the burn­ing of a black church, the three young men were reported miss­ing.    Forty-four days later, their bod­ies were found buried deep in a dam in Philadel­phia, Mis­sis­sippi.  The nation later learned that on their way back, the men’s car had been stopped for a pre­text traf­fic vio­la­tion and the three had been arrested and held for sev­eral hours.  On their release, they were fol­lowed and mur­dered by mem­bers of the Neshoba Coun­try Sheriff’s Depart­ment, Philadel­phia Police, and mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

When Mis­sis­sippi pros­e­cu­tors refused to press mur­der charges, fed­eral author­i­ties, led by Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­eral for Civil Rights John Doar, brought fed­eral crim­i­nal civil rights charges – with mixed results:  seven of the 18 defen­dants were con­victed, with sen­tences between three and ten years.  At the sen­tenc­ing in Decem­ber 1967, fed­eral judge William Harold Cox crudely explained, “They killed one nig­ger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”  In 1999, a new gen­er­a­tion of Mis­sis­sippi law enforce­ment offi­cials reopened pro­ceed­ings, and in 2005 the State of Mis­sis­sippi indicted the Klan leader who had led the group.  ADL wel­comed his conviction.

The mur­ders in Mis­sis­sippi in 1964 out­raged the nation, pro­vid­ing addi­tional momen­tum to pro­pel pas­sage of the com­pre­hen­sive Civil Rights Act later that sum­mer – and the Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA), one of the most impor­tant, effec­tive civil rights laws – the fol­low­ing year.

We have come a long way as a nation since 1964, but vig­i­lance is nec­es­sary to retain that hard-earned progress.  In 2013, unfor­tu­nately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a crit­i­cal VRA pro­vi­sion in Shelby County v. Holder.  The League had urged the Court to uphold the Act in an ami­cus brief.  Instead, a nar­row Court major­ity elim­i­nated the for­mula to deter­mine which states must seek prior gov­ern­ment approval for vot­ing changes. The very day the deci­sion was handed down, a num­ber of states began enact­ing previously-blocked voter ID laws and redis­trict­ing mea­sures.

Now, fifty years later, the League is help­ing to lead a very large coali­tion work­ing to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion, pro­mote equal­ity, and pro­tect the same vot­ing rights for which Schw­er­mer, Good­man, and Chaney gave their lives. ADL is urg­ing broad sup­port  for the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA) which would cre­ate a new for­mula for pre-clearing vot­ing rights changes.

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May 14, 2014 0

From The Archives: ADL’s Involvement In Brown v. Board

Sat­ur­day, May 17th marks the 60th anniver­sary of Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion, the land­mark Supreme Court deci­sion that ruled racially seg­re­gated pub­lic schools “inher­ently unequal” and ordered the deseg­re­ga­tion of America’s pub­lic schools. ADL-brown-amicus-brief

Act­ing on its man­date “to secure jus­tice and fair treat­ment to all cit­i­zens alike and to put an end for­ever to unjust and unfair dis­crim­i­na­tion,” in Octo­ber 1952 ADL’s National Com­mis­sion resolved to encour­age fed­eral and state leg­is­la­tors “to sup­port leg­is­la­tion to insure the great­est pos­si­ble pro­tec­tion of civil rights and equal­ity of oppor­tu­nity for all in the fun­da­men­tal fields of employ­ment, edu­ca­tion and housing.”

The next month, ADL filed an ami­cus brief in Brown, argu­ing that because African Amer­i­can chil­dren were “dis­ad­van­taged by the seg­re­gated pub­lic school sys­tem of Topeka” the Court should “dis­avow the ‘sep­a­rate but equal’ doc­trine as it has been applied to pub­lic edu­ca­tional institutions.”

ADL’s brief noted a lower court’s find­ing that seg­re­ga­tion “irrepara­bly dam­ages the child,” and argued that “that which is unequal in fact can­not be equal in law.” The brief’s final argu­ment read:

Legally imposed seg­re­ga­tion in our coun­try, in any shape, man­ner or form, weak­ens our pro­gram to build and strengthen world democ­racy and com­bat total­i­tar­i­an­ism. In edu­ca­tion, at the lower lev­els, it indeli­bly fixes anti-social atti­tudes and behav­ior pat­terns by build­ing inter-group antag­o­nisms. It forces a sense of lim­i­ta­tion upon the child and destroys incen­tive. It pro­duces feel­ings of infe­ri­or­ity and dis­cour­ages racial self-appreciation.

Today, ADL con­tin­ues to com­bat dis­crim­i­na­tion in schools and advo­cate for edu­ca­tion equity. On its 60th anniver­sary, we rec­og­nize the Brown deci­sion as a mon­u­men­tal leap for­ward in the ongo­ing fight for equal education.

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