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.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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