11/13/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

50 Years Later: How the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act Changed the U.S.

Co-authored by Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy and Director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP.

Fifty years ago, Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation. Enacted just months apart, the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act changed the American story. Through them both runs the thread of freedom and diversity that makes America great.

To understand the significance of these pieces of legislation, we must put them in context: Both were bold and effective responses to long-standing problems.

In 1960, President John F. Kennedy received an alarming report that found that 57 percent of African American housing had been judged unacceptable and that African American life expectancy was seven years shorter than for white Americans. The report also found that African American infant mortality was twice as great as it was for whites and that it was all but impossible for African Americans to obtain home mortgages. The report illustrated that fear and racially based ignorance would cause property values to drop, if an African American family moved into an all-white neighborhood.

Tragically, a sniper's bullet ended President Kennedy's life before he could move with Congress to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson acted with determination and political prowess to pass this crucial legislation and lead our nation in the direction of fulfilling the constitutional promise of equal justice for all.

At the same time, a different national problem was reaching a crisis point. Our national forests were being clearcut for lumber to meet demand from the postwar housing boom. Plans were on the table to allow significant development in our national parks -- and even to dam the Grand Canyon. There was no Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act, and no process for public participation in decision about public lands. Without federal laws to protect our environment, industries assumed they held rightful domination over the natural landscape and that all lands should be subject to commercial or private use and ownership, no matter the cost.

The passage of the Wilderness Act was the culmination of a gradual shift in how Americans viewed our public lands that began with the creation of our first national parks nearly a century earlier. The Wilderness Act established that wilderness lands have intrinsic worth and deserve to be protected in their natural state, unaltered by humans and free for everyone to experience and enjoy. Over the past fifty years, we have now protected nearly 110 million acres of wild lands as part of this preservation system -- in 44 out of 50 states, and in Puerto Rico.

Just as the Wilderness Act changed how Americans view their public lands, the Civil Rights Act changed Americans' views of each other. As a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the African American middle class has grown, helped in large part by the outlawing of race-based employment discrimination. In almost every economic category, African Americans have made gains (although still not at the same rate as white Americans). The median African American family income (in inflation-adjusted dollars) has risen from $22,000 in 1963 to more than $40,000 today (although that's still just two-thirds of the median income for all Americans). The African American poverty rate has dropped from greater than 40 percent in the 1960s to about 27 percent today; child poverty similarly has dipped from 67 percent to about 40 percent. In 1964, just one in four African Americans above age 25 had graduated from high school. Today, that number is 85 percent. The percentage of African Americans with a college degree has risen from four percent to more than 21 percent. The unemployment rate for African American unemployment, however, remains twice as high as for whites, similar to where it was in 1972.

Fifty years after passing the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act, it's clear that although much has changed for the better, more still needs to be done. The anniversary of these breakthrough pieces of legislation is a time not only to celebrate our progress but also to rededicate ourselves.

We need to increase opportunities for all Americans to explore our nation's wild places, while also expanding our concept of what it means to get outdoors. More progress remains to be made in ensuring equitable access to the outdoors. That needs to include more accessible ways to experience nature closer to home. The importance of nearby "pocket parks," for instance, and nature should be on a par with designated wilderness.

We also need to take steps to ensure that our nation's parks, monuments, and other public lands reflect the diversity of the country. President Obama took good first steps when he designated the Cesar Chavez National Monument in California and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland. He has a similar opportunity to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to add the Pullman Historic Site in Illinois to the National Park Service lands as a national monument.

Throughout our history, the people of America and their public lands have been intricately connected. In the next 50 years, we hope that they will become even more so.