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The Civilizing Act of 1964

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Written by Dr. A. Lynn Bolles

Just a mere 50 years ago, the US Congress produced a landmark piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What made this law remarkable was that it outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in a country that proudly claimed to be "the land of the free and the home of the brave." For those who were targets of discrimination due to the color of their skin, their gender, religion or other differences disrespected by the dominant Euro-American perspective, 1964 did not come soon enough. Looking back 50 years allows us to consider, "how far we have come," but also how "retroactive" some sectors of US society have become in recent times.

Members of Generation X and millennial groups likely know of the civil rights movement only through movies and social studies assignments. Indeed, youth for nostalgia for 1964 is perhaps most related to the arrival of the Beatles in the US. However, the June 24, 2014 photo opportunity of members of Congress, holding hands, some singing, most not, "We shall overcome" did attempt to honor the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA64). Yet, the critical point is that this piece of legislation came about due to collective action, caring about others and also concern about how the US was viewed across the globe. Now 50 years later, in what ways can the civilizing act of 1964 spark current on the unfinished work striving towards that better union?

During the June 19, 2014 BET Awards show, former chairwoman of the NAACP and widow of civil rights leader Meager Evers, Mrs. Mrylie Evers- Williams reminded the 7.9 million viewers that just 50 years ago, the TV stations in the South did not broadcast shows featuring Black people. It was a small but meaningful history lesson for the Generation X and Millennials, that event, such as the award show were a result of political struggle. So in keeping with spirit of the 50th anniversary, here is a recap of critical events.

In 1963, President John F Kennedy asked for legislation to give ALL Americans the rights to be served in facilities open to the public as well the protection to vote. He was pushed by the protests from African American communities as well as a ground swell of popular outcry from across the country. Americans were distraught, distressed and saddened by photos appearing in newspapers, TV reporting and by their own eyewitness of students and children being attacked by police dogs and high pressure hoses during their protest against segregation.

The revolution was not televised, but The March on Washington was broadcast on all major networks. Clearly, political pressure mounted, and the President led the effort to address this blight on the nation. After months of deliberations with the Attorney General and leaders of the Senate and the Congress, legislation outlined ways that the nation's most egregious discriminatory practices were to be addressed. By October 1963, avid segregationists vowed to fight this bill to the bitter end. A month later, five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson used the civil rights bill to honor JFK's memory as a fighter who fought hard for freedoms denied member of society. But the battle on the Hill, seeking redress guaranteed in the Constitution was a long-winded one, prolonged by an 84-day filibuster by Southern members of Congress and in the Senate. Dixiecrat Senator Richard Russell remarked that he would resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states. After arduous politicking, diplomacy and compromise, that time honored practice, currently out of vogue, held the day and on July 2nd 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law.

It is not that morality cannot be legislated, as famously noted by Barry Goldwater, but cultures do change and what is "moral" evolves over time. The current push for a conservative, uncivil union is indeed antithesis to the outcome of Civil Rights Act. Culture as systems of social structure, beliefs, arts, knowledge production, technology, sets of behaviors, institutions and law allow humans to vary their positions. This ability for humans to switch ideological positions has to do with levels of satisfaction of how things are going. As a civilizing act, the switch will be beneficial for all. In a recent run off election, Black voters in Mississippi cast ballots for a white archconservative because the alternative candidate would do much more harm to their well-being. Global Renaissance woman, Dr. Maya Angelou notes, "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees that opportunity.

Dr. A. Lynn Bolles is an affiliate faculty in Anthropology, African American Studies, American Studies, Comparative Literature and the Latin American Studies Center at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on women, organized labor and gender relations in globalization particularly in the African Diaspora concentrating in the Caribbean, Latin America and the US. Dr. Bolles also serves on the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association.