by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor, West Virginia University College of Law
*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.
As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Summer protest, it is well worth reflecting on the how the movement challenged us to not only establish formal legal equality, but also to address enduring poverty. The Civil Rights Movement sought to persuade America that all Americans are equal. The Freedom Summer riders (and the many, many more who pressed for civil rights) sought to expose the inequality and oppression in the segregated south of 1964.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, still impact us today. These enactments represent significant progress towards the goal of fostering equality. Moreover, with the contemporary tide of referenda and judicial rulings on marriage equality, the Civil Rights Movement continues to evolve to protect many people who fifty years ago weren’t deemed deserving of civil rights.
Though we think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Summer, and formal legal equality when we think about the Civil Rights Movement, we should also remember that the struggle is really, as historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall explained, a “long civil rights movement.” Hall’s work locates the genesis of the twentieth century movement in the 1930s with the social transformations that occurred due to economic disruption of the Great Depression. Moreover, the long arc of legal transformation to foster equality began with the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments. The civil rights struggle began with confronting the subordination and poverty slavery created.
In this sense, the long civil rights struggle had economic equality of opportunity at its core from the beginning. As Jeremy Leaming discussed on this blog, the question of racial equality in twenty-first century America is at a crossroads in light of retrenchment in civil and voting rights. Yet racial inequality and poverty walk hand and hand and continue to affect the lived experiences of people of color.
NPR host Michel Martin recently wrote an article in the National Journal, discussing the key obstacles that women of color continue to face in the twenty-first century. In discussing this article on NPR’s All Things Considered (where she called her essay her own “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”) she explained how poverty creates an enduring problem for racial minorities:
People of color particularly — but not exclusively blacks and Latinos — are connected to poverty and to disadvantage in ways that often our white colleagues don't understand. That causes you to have to think about things that they aren't thinking about. And that's the kind of thing that I really feel a need to call attention to.
Martin’s words -- especially as they reflect her own experience navigating the intersection of race and class-- remind us that poverty daily affects the lives of people of color, no matter how affluent. Indeed, it is a yet-to-be-fulfilled civil rights issue of the long civil rights movement.