The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal treatment in the workplace, in public facilities, and in public accommodations, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or sex. Equality was not the norm in 1964. Remembering where we started may provide hope and inspiration for the next fifty years.
This is the first of a two part posting: first, a history we have lived, second, imagining and planning for the future.
Looking Back – Part 1
By beginning with a look at the United States of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, we can better appreciate the magnitude of the changes we have experienced. There and then were the conditions which the Civil Rights Act was meant to address. The United States Supreme Court struck down segregated schools and the doctrine of “separate but equal” public facilities, only in 1954. A year later, the Court called for dismantling segregated public schools with “all deliberate speed.” In practice, communities and states intent on resisting the required changes made much of “deliberate” at the expense of “speed.”
In 1960, as part of the Wilmington, Delaware school district’s long delayed preparation for desegregation, I, with a few classmates, had a chance to visit the black school about six blocks from our own. The only apparent equal part was the architectural plan. The two schools had the same floor plans. Even as an eleven year old, I could see that the black school had almost no books, that the sandstone bricks were crumbling, the toilets broken and foul. By contrast, my own school had well maintained granite, a fully stocked library, plenty of classroom supplies and materials, clean and functioning lavatories.
The lack of adequate facilities and the open lie of “separate but equal” were but the tip of the iceberg of de jure segregation. Our country had opportunities only for a select few. We did not tolerate differences. We murdered those who challenged the assigned order. State sponsored and state enforced racial separation — combined with political disenfranchisement, and an economic and social caste system — was violent, brutal, and unremitting. In the Summer of 1964, the world witnessed the terrorism supporting American segregation in the murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
Lynchings, counted in the thousands, were carried out over generations, not only in the South, but throughout the country. “Race riots”, actually pogroms and massacres of entire communities, terrorized people of color. The ferocity of racial as well as ethnic violence characterized and defined American society in the first half of the twentieth century.
Pervasive discrimination was not limited to African Americans. Universities had quotas for Jews, Catholics, and other minorities. Large corporations, law firms, hospitals would not consider ethnic minorities for hire. Women had limited rights to own property. Gays were invisible. In quantitative terms, almost two-thirds of our country’s people suffered discrimination. Freedom and opportunity were reserved for members of a small and privileged class consisting almost exclusively of economically fortunate, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men. The norm, the life experienced by most people, included closed doors, hatred, persecution, and violence.
When we hear the stories of individuals we can begin to understand the extent and severity of discrimination in the mid-twentieth century United States. From my own family stories: a young woman limited to secretarial work for men who were far less talented than she, a high school girl learning from her admired father that his field of work was closed to all women, a man who died unable to tell his family of his love for another human being, a woman hospitalized for “hysteria” as she came to terms with her love of another woman, an entire family whose parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins were slaughtered after the United States refused them safe haven from Nazi genocide.
There are few in my generation, coming of age in the 1960’s, who do not know such stories. The details may vary. The story tellers may be Asian, Hispanic, African American, Irish, Native American. Regardless of one’s origins, America of the early and middle twentieth century held up the torch of liberty and opportunity while unapologetically shutting doors and crushing hopes.
Discrimination and violence strike deeply. At its core, discrimination is a disregard and disrespect of another person’s humanity. It is an expression of contempt and hatred. When we suffer discrimination, the pain stays with us for years. It is felt for generations. When we engage in discrimination, when we tolerate contempt and hatred, and when we acquiesce in violence, we rend the fabric of our communities. We corrupt our souls.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, at the time of its passage, represented our country’s highest aspirations in the face of social and political realities far different than our Constitution’s promises. The ongoing success of that legislation is all around us. Women and minorities have entered the workplace. Many have risen to positions of prominence. People with physical and emotional challenges are emerging from the shadows of dependence and isolation. We are beginning to understand the waste of human potential and the pain we inflict in denying and demonizing love and sexuality. We have made room for a true diversity of spiritual beliefs and practices.
But we can’t take our progress for granted. As we try to imagine the challenges and opportunities of the next fifty years, an appreciation of how far we have come may help us choose compassion over misplaced caution and progress over the next iteration of “all deliberate speed.”
We now have a chance to be on the right side of history. In my next post, I will discuss how we might get there.