This week marks not only the 238th anniversary of the founding of our nation, but also the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The principles contained in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, took nearly 200 years to find their fulfillment in the Civil Rights Act. The declaration that "all men are created equal" was a radical one, more aspirational than real at a time when slavery was not only practiced but would soon be legitimated in our Constitution.
It took a Civil War, with its 750,000 dead, and decades of legal and political struggle and more deaths for those words to be given full meaning. But on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the hard-fought legislation that would turn an abstract principle into the law of the land.
We take for granted now that anyone can take a seat at a lunch counter or register at a hotel of his or her choosing, regardless of skin color. We don't think twice about women being admitted to medical or law school or joining the police force. There are no advertisements for men's jobs or women's jobs, and employers cannot choose to pay whites more than non-whites who perform the same work.
Yet, these practices are relatively new in our nation's history and certainly would not have become the rule were it not for the legislation that banned discrimination on the basis of race, sex and national origin.
At a time when legislation has become increasingly lengthy and obtuse, the 1964 Civil Rights Act is concise and clear in its wording, if not always in the interpretations that have followed.
The act covers several areas, most prominently public accommodations, school desegregation, federal funding and employment. Ironically, equal access to public accommodations, which seems totally uncontroversial today, sparked the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. In 1955, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on the city's segregated bus system. Her arrest sparked protests that led to a bus boycott, from which a then little-known leader emerged, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the years immediately preceding passage of the Civil Rights Act, protests spread throughout the South. Through King's leadership, those who wanted to test segregation laws and customs did so by practicing nonviolent civil disobedience. "Freedom riders," whites and blacks committed to civil rights, rode buses into the South to engage in sit-ins at lunch counters and marches through the streets to protest segregation. When these peaceful demonstrators were met with increasing violence -- beaten, drenched and driven back with powerful fire hoses -- the pictures that filled evening newscasts throughout the nation helped create the public momentum that led Congress to act.
By 1963, more than a thousand major protests had taken place in more than 200 American cities, spreading from the South, where segregation and unequal treatment were enshrined in law, to the North, where discrimination was widely practiced if not given legal justification. Public opinion polls of the era showed increasing support for integrating schools and neighborhoods and outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, with the overwhelming majority of northern whites, 75 percent, favoring integrated public schools.
President John F. Kennedy proposed a new civil rights law in a nationally televised speech in June of 1963. He, of course, did not live to see legislation passed, because he was assassinated less than six months later. But Congress managed, with great debate and political wrangling, to pass legislation. On Feb. 10, 1964, the House passed its version of the legislation, with a far higher proportion of Republicans voting in favor than Democrats: 138-34 Republicans to 152-96 Democrats.
The Senate followed suit only after a filibuster, which allowed unlimited debate and prevented the bill from being voted on for two months and paralyzed all other activity in the Senate, was finally ended by a vote to end debate. Again, the so-called cloture vote, which required two-thirds of senators to vote to cut off debate and bring the bill to a vote, had stronger support among Republicans than Democrats.
We are a better country today for the efforts of those who sought to outlaw discrimination. It is worth remembering their struggles as we honor our nation's founding in celebrations this week.