by Jin Hee Lee, LDF Senior Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
*This piece was originally published in The Courier-Journal
*Noting the 50th anniversaries of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ACSblog is hosting a symposium including posts and interviews from some of the nation’s leading scholars and civil rights activists.
Jin Hee Lee wrote a special introduction for ACSBlog:
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a remarkable legislative achievement during a period of time in our Nation’s history when brave men and women literally risked their lives in pursuit of justice. In the face of violence from white supremacists and segregationist mobs, civil rights heroes like Medger Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., demanded that the United States fulfill its constitutional promise of equality for all Americans. Yet, despite tremendous progress over the past 50 years, we still have a long road ahead in order to achieve the Civil Rights Act’s vision of equality. Racially segregated schools continue to plague our public school system, and mass incarceration has wreaked havoc in the lives of too many African American families. The catastrophic effects of the Great Recession have been felt all across the country, but have been particularly devastating to African Americans, who encounter even more barriers to gainful employment. And, just last year, a deeply divided Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had been instrumental in protecting minorities’ right to vote. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we must also honor its legacy by continuing the struggle for freedom and equality so that, one day, racial justice can truly be achieved.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 years ago was a monumental feat of bipartisan legislation during a crucial phase of American history. Only 10 years earlier, the United States Supreme Court denounced state-sanctioned racial segregation in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education. In the following years, untold numbers of American heroes risked their lives to end Jim Crow laws, with the moral conviction that "equality" is not a mere abstract term, but must necessarily be a lived experience. The Freedom Riders, the bus boycotters, the sitters in lunch counters — black and white, young and old — all were bonded by a common vision of an America that could, despite its flawed origins, embrace the equality and humanity of all its citizens.
The implementation of this vision came at a heavy cost, especially in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Act.