Wednesday was the 75th anniversary of opera singer Marian Anderson’s Easter Sunday appearance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a concert that has echoed down the decades because Anderson, a gifted and skilled contralto, was denied the right to perform in Washington D.C.’s prestigious concert halls because she was African-American.
Think about it – Anderson had appeared at the most august concert halls in Europe and had performed with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, but could not so much as gain admittance to a venue in the nation’s capital because of the color of her skin.
That injustice was eventually amended through invitations to perform at the White House and a Presidential Medal of Honor. Twenty-five years later, justice came to millions of other African-Americans who were living separately and unequally in America with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping and comprehensive of the civil rights laws to come from Congress and the executive branch.
The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is being commemorated this week at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library in Austin, Texas, with President Obama and his living predecessors, with the exception of the now-enfeebled George H.W. Bush, turning up for the celebration. On Tuesday, the admirably candid Jimmy Carter said he believed we had become complacent about civil rights: “We feel like Lyndon Johnson did it. We don’t have to do any more.”
While there, indeed, is still more left to do, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 undeniably cleared a lot of ground. Building on civil rights laws that landed on the statute books in 1866, 1871, 1875, 1957 and 1960, the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based not only on race, but also gender, national origin, the shade of your skin or your religious faith. It ended racial segregation in schools, workplaces and businesses designed to serve the general public. And it also brought an end to practices specifically designed to keep African-Americans from exercising their franchise, such as poll taxes and tests. Though it took parts of the South a while to catch up, blacks could no longer lawfully be denied service in restaurants, strong-armed away from the voting booth or forced to swim in separate public pools.
In a presidency packed with such achievements as Medicare and Head Start, and the monumental failure of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands as one of Lyndon Johnson’s greatest accomplishments. As the bill was being debated on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Everett Dirksen memorably said that “stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.”
Though sparked by the civil rights movement, the law benefits all of us. You cannot be denied admission to a college or university because you are Jewish, say, or be barred from employment because of your gender. The Civil Rights of Act of 1964 protects all of our rights.
Some observers have wondered if today’s fractious, warring and divided Congress could ever pass such a expansive piece of legislation today. Almost certainly not. But we can be glad that, a half-century ago, we had lawmakers with the wisdom and spirit to do so.