The long, bitter fight for our civil rights

July 02, 2004|By Mike Adams

FORTY YEARS ago today, during a cruel summer punctuated by racial violence and the drumbeat for war, sweeping legislation known as the Civil Rights Act became the law of the land.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill in a White House ceremony held five hours after Congress gave it final approval. The 1964 legislation outlawed segregated hotels and restaurants and barred discriminatory hiring practices for businesses with more than 25 employees.

I was 16 when Mr. Johnson signed the bill, which finally reached his desk after a long filibuster in Congress.

Growing up in segregated Baltimore, I guess I should have been overjoyed that Mr. Johnson used his clout to push the bill through Congress, but I had mixed feelings.

It was good to see Jim Crow dying, but change had come too late for my parents and grandparents. Segregation had already molded their lives by eroding their self-esteem and limiting their potential. And it touched my life the moment I was born in a "colored" ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed segregated public schools. Yet a decade had to pass before Congress reluctantly approved legislation ending the most obvious vestiges of segregation. By the time Mr. Johnson signed the bill, rage was growing in the black community. There were problems bred by inequality that the civil rights bill could not address. By all the measurements of social well-being -- infant mortality, household income, employment, education and life expectancy -- blacks lagged behind whites.

On July 18, more than two weeks after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, rioting erupted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, N.Y. On, July 25, Rochester, N.Y., was hit by civil disorder, and in August, rioting spread to two northern New Jersey cities, a Chicago suburb and Philadelphia. The summer of 1964 became the first of the "long hot summers" that had a profound influence on race relations for many years to come.

On July 3, 1964, The Sun carried a front-page headline that said: "Johnson Signs Broad Civil Rights Bill Into Law; Many Southern Business Men Pledge Compliance." A front-page story said the bill "brought varied reactions in the South ranging from ready compliance to outright defiance."

Mr. Johnson, pen in hand, appears in a photo taken during the signing ceremony. In the background are Democratic Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, Republican Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois and GOP Rep. Charles A. Halleck of Indiana. No black civil rights leaders appear in the photo, although the bill resulted from pressure they exerted on Congress.

Inside, there's a brief story about the hunt for three civil rights workers -- Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James E. Chaney -- who disappeared in Mississippi on June 21. Their badly burned station wagon was found two days later on the edge of a swamp north of Philadelphia, Miss. Their badly decomposed bodies were pulled from an earthen dam Aug. 4.

All three had been shot. Mr. Chaney, a black man, was beaten so badly that his injuries were comparable to those suffered by someone in a plane crash.

Once again, world attention was focused on racial violence in the South. In 1963, news footage showed peaceful civil rights protesters being bitten by dogs and knocked down by streams of water from high-pressure fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala. On June 13, a sniper killed civil rights leader Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Mississippi home. On Sept. 15, four black girls attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Ala., were killed in a church bombing.

By the time the civil rights bill became law, segregation and racial violence had become a worldwide embarrassment for the U.S. government. In the early 1960s, diplomats from newly emerging African nations were denied service when they stopped at restaurants along U.S. 40 in Maryland. These incidents, along with Southern racial violence, provided fodder for the Soviets' Cold War propaganda machine.

By 1964, war was looming. A headline in the July 3 edition of The Sun carried a prophetic message: "U.S. Expected to Act Fast If Reds Increase Southeast Asia War." On Aug. 5, U.S. planes bombed North Vietnam.

I disagree with the widely held notion that passage of the Civil Rights Act was a bold move by Mr. Johnson and progressives in Congress. How could the United States hold itself up as the citadel of democracy when millions of its citizens were being denied voting rights and public accommodations because of their race?

During the summer of 1964, "Mississippi Goddam," a song by protest singer Nina Simone, summed up the growing anger and desperation in the black community:

Hound dogs on my trail,

School children sitting in jail,

Black cat crosses my path,

I think every day's gonna be my

last.

It took far too long to pass the Civil Rights Act, and the true heroes were Mr. Schwerner, Mr. Goodman, Mr. Chaney, Mr. Evers and the four girls who died in the Birmingham church bombing. It took their deaths to force Congress to do the right thing.

Mike Adams is assistant city editor at The Sun.

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