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Race and Beyond: Challenges Remain in the Battle for Equal Rights

SOURCE: AP/Joseph Kaczmarek

People cast their votes Tuesday, November 6, 2012, at a polling location inside the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia.

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Even in contemporary America, there are pockets of Bizarro World where people actually believe the 1964 Civil Rights Act is some sort of unconstitutional imposition of liberalism run amok.

While a parade of U.S. presidents celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the anti-discrimination laws, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), a freshman lawmaker who is in league with the Tea Party reactionaries, told a town hall gathering on Monday that he wasn’t sure the law was constitutional.

As reported by Scott Keyes at ThinkProgress, Melvin Flournoy, a 57-year-old African American from Gainesville, asked Rep. Yoho whether he thought the Civil Rights Act was constitutional? If you dare, watch him struggle to answer the question.

“Is it constitutional, the Civil Rights Act?”, Rep. Yoho repeated before giving his reply: “I wish I could answer that 100 percent.” He then, wondered aloud that it just might not be so. “I know a lot of things that were passed are not constitutional, but I know it’s the law of the land.”

As recently as two years ago, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), pooh-poohed the landmark legislation that, among other things, ended discrimination at lunch counters and racist employment practices. In a CNN interview, Sen. Paul said the law had “unintended consequences” that would prevent someone from, say, owning a cigar bar. “It’s not all about race relations,” he said. “It’s about controlling property, ultimately.”

Last week, three former U.S. presidents—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—joined with President Barack Obama to forcefully deliver a different message on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In doing so, they gave well-deserved attention to the often-overlooked actions of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who piloted the legislation through a fretful and reluctant Congress.

President Obama himself stands as perhaps the greatest example of the historic impact that changing the laws had on increasing the political and social integration of African American citizens. “Because of the Civil Rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody,” President Obama said in his speech at the Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas. “They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that’s why I’m standing here today—because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”

To be sure, a heaping share of the credit belongs to President Johnson, who understood and articulated the need for America to end its own version of apartheid; this was not a universally shared opinion of the day. But the Texan had grown up knowing poverty and hated the idea that some Americans had plenty while others had little. Racism only exacerbated the disparity.

In his speech on the legislation’s passage, President Johnson said, “We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are deprived of those blessings—not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.” He added that the law pledged equality to every American: “It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories.”

But make no mistake. Much remains to be done to bring about fuller equality in American life. In his speech at the Johnson library, President Carter criticized those who celebrate past achievements without noting contemporary challenges:

We’ve fallen short in a lot of ways. You know, we still have gross disparity between black and white people on employment, the quality of education. We kind of accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary. Which is, which is wonderful but we feel like, you know, Lyndon Johnson did it. We don’t have to do anything anymore. I think too many people are at ease with the still existing disparity.

Fifty years is a long time. But it’s not so distant in the past that some of us can’t still remember a very different nation. Before President Johnson’s call for a “Great Society,” the United States was a poorer, less well-educated, and a more unhealthy country that was fundamentally undemocratic.

As Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as a special assistant to President Johnson and helped coordinate the passage of the series of laws that formed the Civil Rights Act, made clear in a 1999 article for The Washington Monthly, the laws were an unqualified success:

If there is a prize for the political scam of the 20th century, it should go to the conservatives for propagating as conventional wisdom that the Great Society programs of the 1960s were a misguided and failed social experiment that wasted taxpayers’ money.

Yet the misunderstanding persists, allowing policymakers such as Rep. Yoho and Sen. Paul to declare publicly and without a shred of embarrassment that the 1964 Civil Rights Act tramples on their rights.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here