The Daily Star
---- — We were particularly struck by something in our Weekend story about Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It was a 50-year-old quotation in this newspaper from Dr. James Brewer, a visiting professor at the State University College at Oneonta, about six weeks after President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark legislation.
“The Civil Rights Bill, while technically unnecessary because of the Constitution, is necessary because it is a symbol to the Negro and a scapegoat for the white man,” Brewer said. “White men can now say, ‘We don’t agree with the bill but it is the law of the land. We will obey it.’”
We respectfully disagree with that opinion. The 1964 bill was not the least bit unnecessary, technically or otherwise. It was and remains a living, breathing document in defense of freedom and justice whose relevance must continue to evolve.
Just like the Constitution to which Dr. Brewer referred.
When the ink dried on the document in 1787, people of Brewer’s race could not vote. Neither, for that matter, could any women nor men who were 20 years old or younger. Our Constitution evolved in 1870 to give rights to all citizens, no matter what their race or color, but it took until 1920 for women to get the vote, and it wasn’t until 1971 that those 18 to 20 could cast ballots in an election.
Many of us recall the way our country was in 1964, and those too young to remember should be schooled on how Southern states had separate restrooms and water fountains for blacks and whites, how most schools for blacks were separate and terribly unequal, how state colleges were closed to black admission, and how poll questions and taxes and violence kept blacks from true representation in their government.
It was a world we would not recognize for its open racism and mendacity, but one we would forget at our peril. Even today, after the tremendous strides of the last 50 years, where we have twice elected a mixed-race president, there is much to be done to sustain the benefits of the 1964 legislation.
Minorities earn far less than whites on average. By percentage, more whites than blacks attend and graduate college. Whites have a far lower unemployment rate. More blacks than whites can expect to be hassled on the street by police and arrested.
Today, we have separated our races not by statute but by choice. While there are of course exceptions, we tend to live in separate areas, hang around with people with the same color skin and hire people who look like us.
The Civil Rights Act wasn’t irrelevant in 1964, and it will still be relevant today if we don’t forget its lessons.