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Honoring the Civil Rights Act, 50 Years Later

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Fifty years ago today, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. On that great day in 1964, surrounded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other national leaders, President Johnson outlawed discrimination based on race. While the Civil Rights Act did not eliminate literacy tests, those evil tools used in the South to prevent blacks from voting, it did require that voting rules be applied equally to all races. And it paved the way for the landmark passage of the Voting Rights Act one year later.

It's hard to believe that in 1964, less than 7 percent of Mississippi's African Americans were registered to vote. I was reminded of the hardships of that era the other day while watching Freedom Summer, the incredible PBS documentary on the young black and white volunteers who flooded Mississippi in 1964 to increase voter registration, educate African-American children and draw attention to the countless injustices taking place every day in the Magnolia State.

"What we were trying to do was to organize these communities to take possession of their own lives. For the last hundred years the ability of black people to control their own destiny had been taken away from them," Freedom Summer organizer Charlie Cobb recalls in the film.

Freedom Summer volunteers walked through neighborhoods, struck up conversations in cotton fields, and sat on porches. They reminded local African-Americans that they could vote for sheriff and stop intimidation by the local police. But it was not an easy pitch.

"Immediately, what you found out you were dealing with was fear," remembers Cobb, who at the time was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi. "They would say, 'You're right, boy. We should be registered to vote, but I ain't going down there to mess with them white people.' "

Cobb, who would become a distinguished journalist and author and visiting professor at Brown University, told PBS that the fear was overwhelming. "Within that small group of people who did try and register to vote, very few of them actually got registered to vote." Voting forms were designed to be absurdly complex, and local registrars controlled who was accepted to vote. "In some counties, when people went in to register, their names would appear in the newspaper the next day. That could have recriminations for all members of their family," said historian John Dittmer. "It could mean they would lose their job. There were real consequences to taking this risk."

That was 50 years ago, but the struggle for voting rights continues. Today, strict photo ID requirements and cutbacks to early voting are creating obstacles at the ballot box that disproportionately affect seniors, students, low-income individuals and people of color. Twenty-two states have passed new voting-restriction laws, and advocates are fighting back in court. We must continue to support free and fair voting for all Americans, and to honor the civil rights pioneers who came before us.