Independence Day & The Civil Rights Act of 1964

On 7th July Dr. Christian O’Connell and Professor Neil Wynn took part in a symposium at the Eccles Centre at the British Museum on “The Civil Rights Act 50 Years On” followed by a lecture by Professor William P. Jones(Madison-Wisconsin) on “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Its Historical Legacy.” The initial discussion focussed on the new PBS documentary 1964.

Lyndon Johnson at the signing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2nd 1964 with Martin Luther King Jr present.
Lyndon Johnson at the signing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2nd 1964 with Martin Luther King Jr present.

Focussing on a single year as a year that “changed America” is highly problematic, but the symposium did make us think about the significance of the Civil Rights Act. The anniversary of the act coincides almost exactly with the celebration of America’s Independence Day. The fact that one hundred and eighty-eight years after the famous declaration that “all men are created equal” and have “certain inalienable rights,” legislation was still required to bring those rights to the black (and in some respects, female) population demonstrates that 1776 marked only the beginning of the pursuit of freedom in the USA. Equally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, often seen (wrongly) by many people as the direct consequence of the March on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, represented not the culmination of the civil rights struggle, but just another milestone in the campaign to make America live up to its promise of equality for all.

It was passed only after a great of political manoeuvring in Congress and further demonstrations by black activists, most notably in St. Augustine, Florida. It still took years for the act to be fully implemented and it required the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to extend equal rights into the political sphere. Further legislation in 1968 addressed inequalities in housing. Economic discrimination and widespread poverty still persisted and was the focus of Martin Luther King’s campaign when he was murdered in 1968. It is worth remembering that the act was followed by the events in Selma, Alabama, and the Meredith March in 1966 that witnessed the “birth” of Black Power.

At least six civil rights activists were murdered in 1965-66, and race violence so widespread in the South, was soon to erupt in the different form of race riots in northern and western cities – they almost became an annual event through to the 1970s. Clearly, the struggle for equality was to continue, and the fact that segregation continues in America today and some of the measures of the Civil Rights Act are now being challenged or undone, is a reminder that what we celebrate on Independence Day is still not the final realisation of the American promise, but the beginning of the what remains the American Dream – a set of aspirations perhaps we can all share regardless of nationality.

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