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Thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

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CIVIL RIGHTS ACT 1964
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. With the stroke of a pen, the federal government blotted out "separate but equal," put the power of the Department of Justice behind desegregation of public schools, and laid the foundation for racial, religious and gender equality in the workplace.

Despite the enormity of the change it ushered in, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hailed the legislation not as a victory but as the "dawn of a new hope" and a "cool serene breeze in a long hot summer" of racial oppression. Dr. King recognized that the law did not mark the end of the struggle, but the beginning of fundamental change.

A half-century later, the Civil Rights Act still stands as both a signal achievement and a reminder of the work that lies ahead for the attainment of true and lasting equality. The law dismantled the edifice of "separate but equal" in its most odious form.

Today, the notion of a "Colored Only" drinking fountain seems alien and unthinkable. The Civil Rights Act changed more than the law; it changed attitudes. The recent downfall of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling demonstrates that the strongest enforcer of civil rights remains the court of public opinion.

In spite of the great progress that has already been achieved and the potential for more, the promise of the Civil Rights Act has yet to be fully realized. The law authorized the Attorney General to sue public schools for failing to heed the charge of Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate "with all deliberate speed." Today, an estimated 74 percent of African-American students and 79 percent of Latino students attend majority-minority schools.

Education equity remains largely elusive. Less than one-third of schools serving the most African American and Latino students offer calculus. One-quarter of those schools do not even offer algebra II, 60 percent have no physics classes, and one-third do not offer chemistry classes of any kind. Sixty years after Brown and fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, the work to close the education equity gap continues.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act required employers to provide male and female workers equal pay for equal work. But a substantial pay gap persists. The first piece of legislation signed into law by President Obama -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- makes it easier for women to secure back-pay when they suffer years of unequal compensation. In April, however, another bill would have banned companies from retaliating against women for seeking equal pay. It was blocked in the Senate. And, in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court made it harder for female workers to band together to sue their employer for unequal pay, making it nearly impossible for women to wage costly litigation battles on their own.

For members of the LGBT community, who are not explicitly included in the Civil Rights Act, monumental change is afoot. Today, in most states, workers can still be fired or denied a job simply for being gay. But in the coming days, we hope and expect President Obama will amend an existing executive order barring employment discrimination by federal contractors to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected categories -- a move that will extend workplace protections to approximately 20 percent of the nation's workforce. The order could pave the way for legislation that would prohibit employers from discriminating against LGBT individuals.

Dr. King famously said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The Civil Rights Act changed the face of the nation, bending the arc sharply on July 2, 1964.

But much work remains. On the 50-year anniversary of its passage, let us rededicate ourselves to the task of building a fairer, more just society.