Throughout my life, I have been impacted by the work of Martin Luther King and others as they worked to bring equality to people of my race. It is interesting, however, the way in which people interpret the events that have brought us to this point. Most importantly, as the nation marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there is much about this historic piece of legislation that has been forgotten or deliberately misrepresented. Few contemporary American students may remember that its supposed champion, President Lyndon B. Johnson, left office under the cloud of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War after declining to seek a second term. Fewer still may recall that it was Southern Democrats, including Senators Al Gore, Sr. and Robert Byrd, who filibustered the legislation for 83 days or that Republicans like Ohio Congressman Bill McCulloch played a crucial role in getting the bill passed.
On paper, the Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It applied to voter registration requirements, as well as segregation in schools, workplaces and public facilities. Together with the Voting Rights Act that passed the following year, it was arguably the most important legislation of the twentieth century.
In one sense, the legacy of the Civil Rights Act can hardly be disputed. Since its passage, black political participation has grown astronomically and remains high. In fact, the African-American voter turnout rate was higher than the white turnout rate in the 2012 presidential election. There has also been a steady increase in the number of black elected officials, not to mention a black president elected twice.
But it is also easy to give the legislation too much credit for overall black improvement. For example, as Census data demonstrates (and many black conservatives and moderates point out regularly), black income actually rose faster during the two decades that preceded the Civil Rights Act than in the two decades that followed. Thus much of black progress can simply be attributed to growing economic opportunity and the African American determination to overcome obstacles, including Jim Crow laws.
Ironically, the success of the Civil Rights Act inspired generations of advocates for all sorts of causes, many of which had nothing to do with Jim Crow discrimination. In the decades that followed, everyone from animal rights activists, to environmental extremists and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender advocates would try to further their group’s agenda by framing it as a continuation of the Civil Rights Act.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.