Fifty years ago, Congress passed what has been called one of the most important laws of the 20th century. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the era of legal segregation in public places like hotels and restaurants. It was a historic moment of progress that marked dramatic change in our nation. But we know that, even though we no longer live with the blatant discrimination of the past, our work is still not complete.
The Civil Rights Act did dramatically change life in the United States. We have many brave leaders to thank for ridding our country of the type of institutionalized hatred that forced people to sit in the back of busses and to drink from separate drinking fountains because of the color of their skin.
President John F. Kennedy championed the Act, but did not live to see its passage. His brother and Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, would continue to stump for the cause as a U.S. Senator. In a speech given at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 1966, RFK spoke of how global the civil rights efforts had already become. He also knew then, and it’s still true now, that the strongest agents of social change are often our young people. Kennedy said, “Each nation has different obstacles and different goals, shaped by the vagaries of history and of experience. Yet, as I talk to young people around the world, I am impressed not by the diversity but by the closeness of their goals, their desires and their concerns and their hope for the future.”
The same is true of the civil rights work that endures today. While formal change continues through legal and legislative action, our younger generations are also more connected than ever before through technology and social media. While these platforms sometimes expose continued examples of prejudice and hate, they also show how our country keeps moving closer to becoming the nation we set out to be – a place where all men and women are deemed to be “created equal.” But even as technology advances, some of our most traditional morals remain a guide. Often, it all comes down to treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves.
The Civil Rights Act paved the way to real equality for African Americans, as well as for other minority groups and women. Now we must continue to see that work to its end. Each of us can rededicate ourselves to bringing about greater unity and fair treatment within our communities and our country. In the words of America’s great civil rights champion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” During this Black History Month 50 years after the landmark Civil Rights Act, let us remember again that we can join power and love to better ourselves and our nation.