Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson went before the American people to announce the signing of one of the most important pieces of legislation in our history: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That act banned discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or national origin in public places and enshrined into law the core ideals of the Civil Rights movement.
A half century later, it’s clear that this act, the Civil Rights Act, was a success. Jim Crow is a thing of the past and we now have an African-American president, something that was unthinkable in 1964.
But despite all the progress we’ve made in the past fifty years, we still have a very long way to go. And if we want to move forward as a country, we need to start by remembering the past.
The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to revisit Johnson’s speech announcing the signing of the Civil Rights Act. That speech is both a guide to our history and a roadmap to our future.
Framing is the key to any public speech, and in his remarks about the Civil Rights Act, Johnson, who had been president for less than a year at that point, started out by connecting the bill he had just signed to the ideals of the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence:
My fellow Americans: I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American.
One hundred and eighty-eight years ago this week a small band of valiant men began a long struggle for freedom. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor not only to found a nation, but to forge an ideal of freedom—not only for political independence, but for personal liberty—not only to eliminate foreign rule, but to establish the rule of justice in the affairs of men.”
Johnson then went on to say that the only way to preserve those revolutionary values was to expand on them:
That struggle was a turning point in our history. Today in far corners of distant continents, the ideals of those American patriots still shape the struggles of men who hunger for freedom.
This is a proud triumph. Yet those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”
To people listening to this speech in 1964, Johnson’s message was obvious: if the American people were to fulfill the legacy of their founders, they needed to end segregation once-and-for-all.
Johnson then made this point explicitly clear by contrasting the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence with the reality of the Jim Crow South in the 1960s:
Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.
We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.
We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.
We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings—not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.
Acknowledging that the discrimination was deeply rooted in American history and society, Johnson then reminded his audience that while this might be true, it was no excuse for inaction. Segregation was an affront to everything democracy stands for, and therefore needed to be destroyed once-and-for-all:
The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand—without rancor or hatred—how this all happened.
But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.
Of course, people in the 1960s, as they do now, have very different ideas about morality and the Constitution, so Johnson was careful to sell the Civil Rights Act as a bipartisan document, which of course it was:
That law is the product of months of the most careful debate and discussion. It was proposed more than one year ago by our late and beloved President John F. Kennedy. It received the bipartisan support of more than two-thirds of the Members of both the House and the Senate. An overwhelming majority of Republicans as well as Democrats voted for it.
It has received the thoughtful support of tens of thousands of civic and religious leaders in all parts of this Nation. And it is supported by the great majority of the American people.
Ironically, the people Johnson was most worried about when it came to accepting the Civil Rights Act were people in his own party – Southern Democrats who supported segregation like it was their birthright.
Backlash against the Civil Rights Act from racist white people would, of course, eventually split the Democratic Party and revitalize a Republican Party that was all-too-willing to use racism to win elections.
But at the time, Johnson still thought he could keep his party together, and he tried the best he could to stress that the Civil Rights Act was very, very limited in its scope:
The purpose of the law is simple.
It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others.
It does not give special treatment to any citizen.
It does say the only limit to a man’s hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability.
It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.
Whether or not the Civil Rights Act could have been more effective if it did include more ways to ensure economic as well as legal equality is still a matter of debate today. After all, how can we destroy racial hierarchy without reducing the power of the people who sit on the top of that hierarchy – white people?
Of course, these kind of questions were politically impossible for Johnson to ask in 1964. After all, Democrats still needed those white racists in the South to vote for them in national elections. And so, Johnson made sure to point out in his speech that the Civil Rights Act wasn’t a “punishment.”:
We must not approach the observance and enforcement of this law in a vengeful spirit. Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions—divisions which have all lasted too long. Its purpose is national, not regional.
Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.
Obviously it was easy for Johnson, a white man, to say that racism shouldn’t be “punished.” But he had a point. True change only happens when people come together without fear to work towards a common goal, and making one section of the population feel like they’re evil makes doing this impossible.
The Civil Rights Act, Johnson then said, was therefore a challenge – a challenge to the American people to see if they could among themselves work out a way to make good on the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence:
This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our States, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.
So how could the American people meet this challenge? Johnson said by coming together across class and social lines:
So tonight I urge every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional man, every workingman, every housewife—I urge every American—to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people—and to bring peace to our land.
After urging Americans to work together to make the Civil Rights Act reality, Johnson then closed his speech, with a kind of prayer:
My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail.
Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this Nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all.
Johnson was right. Racism is indeed a poison, a poison that destroys both the poisoner and the poisoned. And the Civil Rights Act that he signed into law fifty years ago today has, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, helped us cleanse ourselves of a little bit of that poison.
But the poisonous effect of slavery and racism still lingers.
White families still, on average, earn $2 for every $1 earned by a black family.
Young black men, meanwhile, are still terrorized by a justice system that sees them as inherently more dangerous as white people, as any study of marijuana or even murder conviction rates can tell you.
And at the same time, the corporate-backed school “reform” movement is threatening to undo the gains made after Brown v. Board of Education.
A lot has changed in the fifty years since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. And there is no question, in my opinion, that we live in a better country now because of it.
But to paraphrase something Johnson said on July 2, 1964, freedom is only secure if each generation fights to renew and enlarge its meaning.
The Civil Rights Act was a great starting point, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Let’s get started.