On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on national television to sign the Civil Rights Act, legislation born in the strife of people of color and their liberal white allies who marched, prayed and endured physical violence trying to bring legal rights to a part of the United States that was still shaking off the legal chains of slavery.
“We believe that all men are created equal – yet many are denied equal treatment,” Johnson said. “We believe that all men have certain inalienable rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty – yet millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skins.”
Since that day 50 years ago, the formalism of that promise may have been fulfilled, but the spirit seems to be lacking, according to polls that try to measure attitudes on race relations.
Perhaps even more importantly, the question of race relations has become significantly broadened beyond black and white to a whole range of questions involving Latinos and Asians who are making their own demands on political and economic systems that have been long closed to them.
It is often painful to remember the days leading up to the Civil Rights Act. Four black girls died in an act of terror by a white supremacist group who bombed an African American church in Birmingham, Ala., the most visible and horrifying act in an era that included the murders of three men – two white, one black – who were assassinated while registering black voters in Mississippi.
Pictures of young children desegregating white schools in a variety of states but especially in Mississippi and Alabama flooded the airways as did film of demonstrators being fought by cops with dogs and water cannons. It was Alabama Gov. George Wallace who pledged at his Jan. 14, 1963, inauguration that he would fight for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” – a rallying cry that helped launch Wallace on a national political career.
Much of the issue at the time was simple. The South had a legal system of Jim Crow laws that enshrined separate but equal status for people of color. The laws often went back to the late 19th century as the South tried to rid itself of the pain of black slavery and the decades of what whites saw as exploitation at the hands of former slaves and white Yankees seeking spoils after the Civil War.
But the facilities never really were equal and over the years the disparity between blacks and whites legally grew in the South. The North was hardly immune to racism, but the issue there was more de facto segregation rather than the South's legal framework of discrimination in housing, jobs and opportunity.
The Civil Rights Act was designed to change the legal forms of segregation. The act, the first of many, outlawed discrimination and segregation in schools, employment and places of public accommodation among other areas. The signing 50 years ago changed the face of America, as Barack Obama, the first African American president, noted in a civil rights speech at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, in April.
“New doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody,” regardless of race, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation, President Obama told the audience of civil rights champions and others, according to a statement released by the White House.
“They swung open for you, and they swung open for me,” the president said. “And that’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”
Though there has been progress, all is not exactly perfect even half a century later. Polls show that a majority of all Americans say there has been progress in getting rid of racial discrimination, but most say at least some forms of discrimination still exist. African Americans are more likely than whites to see discrimination as widespread.
For example, Gallup polls show that 72% of whites said race relations were good or somewhat good in 2013, but just 66% of blacks fell in the same camp.
According to a CBS News poll released this week, more than three in four Americans, including most whites and blacks, think the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a very important event in U.S. history; an additional 19% call it somewhat important. Just 5% did not consider it an important event.
When it comes to progress, the response really depends on where in the social order the respondents stand. Nearly eight in 10 Americans think there's been real progress since the 1960s in getting rid of racial discrimination, but whites, at 82%, are far more likely than blacks, at 59%, to think real progress has been made, according to the poll. More than a third of African Americans say there hasn't been real progress.
Just 5% said they thought all of the goals of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s have been achieved, with 38% saying most of these goals have been met.
Still, 52% (including 63% of blacks) think only some of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.
No other group besides African Americans went through the historical experience of slavery and then integration into U.S. society. Other ethnic groups -- including the Irish, Italians, Jews and Latinos -- have come as immigrants, but none faced the kind of experience that blacks did, though all face discrimination in many of the same areas. After 50 years, the Civil Rights Act has found a new life in dealing with some of those problems.
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