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The Courage of Sacrifice: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, 50 Years Later

06/25/2014 08:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2014

This July our country will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark legislation was the brainchild of President John F. Kennedy and others who, a year earlier, had introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1963 but failed to get enough support in Congress. It was only after Kennedy's untimely assassination that President Lyndon B. Johnson had the momentum he needed to give this bill the much-needed push that civil-rights groups and so many Americans alike knew was long overdue. The new law outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in schools and places of public accommodation, in addition to establishing Title VII, the basis for equal opportunity in employment. News of the bill's passage was met with a predictably mixed bag of reactions. The NAACP's then-president Roy Wilkins referred to the new law as "a Magna Carta for human rights," while Congressman Howard Smith called it a "monstrous oppression of the people." A review of today's headlines might suggest that both were a little on the correct side.

If there is any dominant theme for this period, beyond the perseverance within the human spirit, it is the courage of sacrifice. The road to the Civil Rights Act was hardly an easy one, and it is nearly impossible to overstate the difficulty and loss of life and limb incurred by so many in their efforts to advance the cause of equal rights. They were determined to push past simple conversations during evening news segments that depicted horrific images of fire hoses and dogs being used against black Americans, and other savage acts being committed by Americans against other Americans, but they committed to bringing this reality all the way to a piece of legislation sitting on the president's desk.

The stage had been set as early as 10 years before the bill was signed into law, when the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education took the first step and opened the door to equal access in the area of education for all Americans. Despite that momentous victory, the fight for civil rights would still claim the lives of Medgar Evers, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesle, along with countless unidentified others. Some willingly sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of equality and creating a better world, while others were casualties just as they were minding their own business and doing something as innocent as heading to Sunday school. It seems tragically ironic that so many would have to lose their own lives in order for others to enjoy the full benefits of being alive in a free society. However, it raises a bigger question: What are we prepared to sacrifice today?

Now, let me be clear: This piece is unapologetically directed toward black America. Why? Because while civil rights does mean human rights and any form of discrimination is deplorable, it cannot be disputed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a direct response to racial discrimination against blacks. Ironically, as we have continued to expand our definitions about what civil rights does and should mean -- and for whom -- the ill of systemic racism seems to evolve and persist, with fewer and fewer folks willing to address it head-on.

I've heard a few folks discuss "the new civil rights" and "civil rights' new frontier." I'm not quite sure how you come out with a sequel before the end of the first movie, but newsflash, folks: Despite the highly objectionable co-opting of the "old" civil-rights movement, and despite the best efforts of many who would seek to change the discussion, the "new" civil rights is still very much the "old" civil rights, just in flyer clothes and with a more expansive vocabulary.

Fundamentally, the civil rights movement was always about access: access to the same opportunities inherent within that ever-elusive American dream; access to jobs; access to education; and access to the same protection under the laws of the land. The SCOTUS' recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and affirmative action in higher education, the school-to-prison pipeline affecting young black men in disproportionate numbers, the innumerable microaggressions faced by black women daily, and the unforgettable and unprecedented two-year battle for the Affordable Care Act are all examples of how equal access remains the holy grail for Americans of all races and creeds, as well as both sexes.

Despite the gains made since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we still remain woefully behind in a race so serious that the outcome threatens the very future of our freedom. I'm not talking about freedom in the sense of freedom from shackles or involuntary servitude, because it's hardly limited to race or sex. At least on some level, what is threatened is the freedom of a vast majority of Americans: economic freedom for the working class, intellectual freedom, and all points in between. There are still populations in this country who can call themselves Americans but are yet denied the full benefits of American personhood. If there is any evidence of our need for continued progress, it is there.

The brilliance of the movement that brought about the Civil Rights Act is that it was all expertly and deliberately engineered, crafted by bold thinkers who had manufactured a formula for greatness by combining the intellectual strength of the educated elite with the undaunted spirit of a people who simply would not be broken. The finishing touch was a dash of hope -- hope that there was more to be seen, more that could be accomplished for our benefit. They dared not simply to dream but to commit themselves at all costs to bringing that reality to fruition.

We have strayed too far off course and threaten to dishonor that legacy with small-scale projects not befitting the brain power, resources, and networks at our disposal. Much of this can arguably be attributed to a shift of focus toward the individual and away from community. We have allowed status to distract us from continuing to place our focus on the pursuit of greater influence to be wielded in favor of the common good. Many of us are so enamored with the culture of individual celebrity, shiny awards, fancy degrees, expensive cars, custom-made suits, and $400 jeans that so many of us have no idea that we are actually still running a race at all.

Sacrifice? This close to the Essence Festival?

Believe me, I understand how radically absurd the concept of collective sacrifice for greater gains may seem, but trust that I'm going somewhere with this.

Before I am grouped with the Bill Cosbys and President Obamas of the world for condescending and finger-wagging rhetoric toward the community without a fair acknowledgement of many of the systemic constraints that are partly responsible for our condition, let me affirmatively state that I am not of that school of lecturer. Sorta. I don't believe those to be either/or conversations; rather, I believe that they are but/and discussions of equal relevance. The bottom line is that we must insist on our involvement in conversations around agenda setting as stakeholders in our own futures while still being willing to call out oppression and the oppressor, despite how mild or severe the encounter may be. The longer we shy away from this greater discussion, the more we run the risk of having crucial decisions about our own paths made for us rather than being in control of ourselves.

There are those among us who believe that the conversation about race in 2014 is overplayed. They cower from the discussion, intent on focusing only on "the merits," and love to say things like "postracial" and "I don't see color." Nonsense! Race is the discussion. It is the first discussion. It is the last discussion. It is the only discussion. To think otherwise is to unwittingly place blinders upon your own face while driving across a treacherous road. I submit that those of such mindsets are as toxic and dangerous to our communities as the most hateful racists themselves.

One of the greatest dangers threatening to undermine the progress we have made since 1964 is the sanitized revision of history that we have begun to tell our youth in our schools and at home. In some spaces, this time in our nation's history has been recharacterized as little more than a neatly packaged ideological conflict between two equally footed factions that held opposing viewpoints. I suspect that this is much less about helping the descendants of those mentioned earlier who lost life and limb move on and more about helping the descendants of those responsible for the aforementioned loss to not remember -- or to conveniently misremember -- America's brutal transgressions against its own citizens. It is an uncomfortable period; there is no getting around that. And it should be uncomfortable, not simply because it is marred in hatred and bigotry but, more importantly, because the story is still being told, and it isn't all just history. The same insidious prejudice that made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a necessity still persists a half-century later. Whether we discuss race within the context of systemic socioeconomic oppression or the context of race itself as a social construct, we are still discussing race, because race still remains the American reality. And believe me, it's 10 times harder to live that reality than it could ever be to simply hear about its continued existence, so I'm about as unapologetic in bringing it up as others are about the fact that it is something that can still be brought up.

Fortunately, in 2014 there are no dogs to be reckoned with, no fire hoses, no National Guard present when it's time to go to class, and much fewer hooded Klansmen burning crosses on our front yards while moonlighting as policemen during the day. (Notice I said "much fewer.") We have even more allies in different communities whose collective voices give our own more strength. These are groups who were not at the table in 1964 but have come forward in the five decades since and refused to be invisible. It would seem that our biggest obstacle may be ourselves. So how courageous are we?

I just hope we aren't still asking this of ourselves in 2064.