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The Civil Rights Act: Fifty years later

GLORIA J. BROWNE-MARSHALL | 7/10/2014, 2:58 p.m.

Many died. Millions suffered. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. America expected great change. Fifty years later, there is a difference, but some things may never change.

The 1960s in America were tumultuous times. Johnson rose to office, after the November 1963 murder of President John F. Kennedy. That year marked brutality across the South, with voting rights activist Medgar Evers killed in Mississippi and four little Black girls killed in an Alabama church bombing.

Under Johnson, Congress used its power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to end segregation in private businesses. If a business affected interstate commerce, it was covered by the act. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled even a small country restaurant was subject to the act because its meat was from out of state. Therefore, Ollie’s Bar-B-Q could no longer force Blacks to eat outdoors.

Women gained a great deal from the Civil Rights Act, too. Initially, gender was not in the proposed law. Protecting against sex discrimination was so controversial that conservatives added the sex provision in hopes of killing the entire Act. However, the bill passed anyway, giving feminists a weapon against sex discrimination.

For women, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act required recipients of federal money to provide equal opportunity. High school and college sports programs were forced to provide women with scholarships, training and access to facilities. With those opportunities and affirmative action, women propelled themselves forward.

Immigrants, LGBT, seniors and the disabled benefitted from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, directly or indirectly. The Act, combined with hundreds of racial justice cases fought in the U.S. Supreme Court, provided a foundation for expanding their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment and relevant federal legislation.  

Johnson, a Southerner, might not have envisioned that within 50 years of his 1964 Civil Rights Act there would be a two-term African-American president. Born to poor farmers in Texas, Johnson may not have known African-Americans would ascend to power in business, arts, science, sports and education. Now, technology is a brave new world in need of more African-American pioneers. While the criminal justice system stands as a testament to continued racial disparities. Federal laws cannot change hearts intent on racial prejudice. However, the Civil Rights Act created legal consequences for certain prejudices.

Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, racial discrimination took place with impunity. This Act subjects those who choose to discriminate to money damages if proved. Because of the Civil Rights Act, people of color, women, immigrants and those of all religious faiths can fight prejudice in court.

There are concerns the Supreme Court will restrict protections within an already weakened Civil Rights Act. A conservative faction of the court questioned race-based federal protections created during the 1960s. Last year, the court limited provisions of the Voting Rights Act in the case of Shelby County v. Holder.

However, in 2013, Texans filed 9,068 charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the largest number of any state. Prejudice may be a fact of life, but for anyone facing discrimination, Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, which rose from a gloomy past 50 years ago, remains a bright star of hope.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is an associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College and is a legal correspondent who covers the U.S. Supreme Court, the United Nations and major legal issues. Her book, “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” (Routledge), covers U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving race and education, criminal justice, voting rights, civil liberties, property ownership and internationalism. Follow her on Twitter @GBrowneMarshall.