Earlier this month, President Obama, before an audience at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, called the 1964 Civil Rights Act “the most sweeping” legislation since Reconstruction. He was in Texas to mark the 50th anniversary of its passage.
And while 1964 may seem like ancient history — most people living today, after all, were not even born then — the Civil Rights Act has created rights and privileges for Americans that, a half century earlier, could only be imagined. Without its passage, history would look completely different; reality, as well.
Prior to the Civil Rights Act, America was a country where exceptions to the rule were exceptional; rare and, more often than not, non-existent. It is a painful admission, but fifty years ago buying something as inconsequential as a Coke and candy bar in many places was either impossible or problematic for an entire class of Americans!
For all intents and purposes, before 1964, civil rights was an empty expression. Underscoring this reality was a bill introduced in Congress in 1944 aimed at ending workplace and housing discrimination based on “race, creed or national origin.” It died; the victim of a three-week filibuster. Its sponsor? New Mexico Sen. Dennis Chavez, the Senate’s only Latino member.
While the bill died the idea of real, tangible, comprehensive civil rights did not. At first, many Latinos were cool to the idea thinking involvement in this movement might seem radical. “People thought it was more a black and white issue,” recalled Arizona Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva in a recent telephone interview. But, soon enough, “we began to see the correlation, linkages between people of color in the country not enjoying the full power of citizenship.”
“The Civil Rights Act changed the social fabric of this nation. Its arc is one of the reasons I’m in the position I’m in,” he says. Grijalva is one of the estimated 5,850 Latinos who have been elected to public office since civil rights became legislation.
The challenge for civil rights activists during this period was compounded by a basic fear from those who embraced the status quo, says Geri Gonzales, wife of the late civil rights crusader, Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzales. “If anybody speaks up, is fighting for something that’s right, they’re considered radical. We weren’t radical. We just wanted what everybody else took for granted.”
Gonzales and her husband were fixtures in Colorado and throughout the West as Latinos joined the fight for civil rights. While civil rights efforts have resulted in Latino mayors, governors and scores of elected officials, Gonzales laments that some of the battles today are the same ones she and Corky crusaded for fifty years ago. “We’re still stuck on immigration. Sometimes I wonder if it’ll ever happen.”
Also impacted by the era was Gonzales’ son, Rudy, who, along with his siblings, accompanied his parents on their civil rights odyssey. It was “first class training in organizing, leadership and activism,” he says. “With the present day assault on civil rights and human rights, civic engagement is paramount for me and every person in our country.”
The law “had deep repercussions in Mexican Americans communities across the Southwest,” Dallas Morning News columnist Mercedes Olivera wrote recently. It resulted in “greater access to the voting booth and educational opportunities have created generations of Latino public officials and education leaders and have integrated Hispanics more fully into U.S. society.”
Johnson’s signing of the bill was only a moment in the struggle for civil rights. Huge swaths of opposition to it resulted in unspeakable violence, mainly where voices demanding change and other demanding a status quo clashed both philosophically and physically.
From 1960, banner headlines reflecting an unquenchable thirst for equality were common and growing. They announced thoughtful sit-ins at lunch counters along with peaceful demonstrations. These actions only continued to grow and garner attention. But they also demonstrated the degree to which others would go to stop this movement.
The ‘60s had Americans watching black-and-white film clips or looking at photographs showing National Guard troops protecting students as they tried to integrate public schools or universities in Mississippi and Alabama. Grainy film clips now with scratchy sound also show authorities using fire hoses and police dogs against demonstrators, searchers looking for civil rights workers kidnapped and murdered by vigilantes and thousands marching on places like Selma and Washington, all in the name of equal rights.
“We could not have endured much longer had the ’64 signing not occurred,” says University of New Mexico historical writer and English professor Dr. Michelle Hall-Kells. The massive and growing resistance to the status quo, including Freedom Summer, was not going away. “It pressed LBJ into doing the right thing.”
While African-Americans may have walked the point in this national struggle, Latinos had also endured their own issues, including one involving World War II Mexican-America casualty, Felix Longoria. It made national headlines.
Longoria was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the Philippines. But when his body was returned, the local funeral home refused his family its chapel; the owner saying the town’s white population might not like it. A local doctor, fellow veteran and founder of the G.I. Forum, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, stepped in. Garcia petitioned freshman Sen. Lyndon Johnson. Johnson arranged interment at Arlington National Cemetery where Longoria is buried today.
Hall-Kells says too many of the epic gains that resulted from the Civil Rights Act are today taken for granted. “I can’t imagine a 2104 without a 1964 moment,” says the UNM professor.”Without those formative policy changes our civic imagination would be so limited.”
Perhaps the biggest gain, Hall-Kells says, have been in gender equality. Women a half century ago were simply not part of the discussion in terms of career opportunities. Today, while still not exactly equal partners in many fields, woman have climbed to the top in finance, politics, science and technology and so many other disciplines once the sole purview of men. But much work remains. “The groups that are still struggling and have not benefited are women of color. There is a lot of unfinished work.”
But fifty years into the civil rights era, all is not well, Grijalva says. “On the eve of the celebration, we also have the threat of retrenching.” And, says the son of a Bracero worker, “it makes for a racial divide, which tears at the fabric of our nation.” His reference is to recent laws passed in his own state, SB 1070 and SB 1062.
The former, which was upheld, gave police the authority to stop individuals and check immigration status. The latter, vetoed by the governor, would have allowed individuals or businesses to refuse service to someone if it “burdened their exercise of religion.” In this case, the bill allowed businesses to refuse service to gays.
Subsequent to the Arizona laws, similar measures were drafted in a number of states. In most cases, the legislation used Arizona’s as blueprints but also were designed with more muscle and able to withstand judicial scrutiny.
Grijalva says that despite the battering the Civil Rights Act has taken, it was and continues to be an important document. “One has to have firm belief that the values we have in this country, civil rights, voting rights have all been positive steps toward a more perfect union.”
The Arizona Congressman says the nation, as attested by the great strides taken by women and minorities over the last fifty years, is better because of the law. But, he adds, it is not something that is part of the past. “We should quit treating it as a relic. We have to look at it as a living part of our laws and the values of this nation.” The law, he says, “shouldn’t be treated as nostalgia. It is an organism that needs protecting.”
In the years that have passed, critics have accused LBJ of using the civil rights for political and not altruistic ends. Others disagree and say his motivation was based on memories from his days as a school teacher in Cotulla, Texas.
But his words before and after the bill suggest sincerity. “Many Americans live on the outskirts of hope,” he once said. “Some live there because of poverty and some because of their color and all too many because of both.”
The official anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is July 2.