Fifty years ago, on July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Our government has been enforcing the law ever since. It contains sweeping legislation that demands compliance from every sector of American life—from schools, to housing, employment, transportation and public facilities. But we all know that one stroke of a pen from a president is just the beginning.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was framed primarily from injustice done to African Americans. But everyone has benefitted—women, other minority groups, religious groups, and now the LGBT community. Generally speaking, most every group in America—except white men—has had their civil rights violated. But, it can also be argued that no group has been immune. If you’re not being discriminated against because of race, it’s your gender, religion, sexual orientation or age. There are other categories like physical appearance that are not specifically addressed under the Act, but today they can bear weight in court as well.
We’ve come a long way overcoming discrimination. Now, in light of the July 4th holiday, is a perfect time to reflect on our progress as people and as a nation. This 50th anniversary is a time to pay homage to so many who came before us—those who were beaten, bombed, hanged, or denied voting and other rights because they stood up for justice.
The rights that so many of us take for granted would not have been possible without those committed to the struggle—from maids and janitors to preachers and politicians.
Today, people don’t march like they used to (although the Occupy Movement is the closest example I’ve seen in years). But the fight for equality is very much alive. And it has never been more needed than it is now.
I have heard the older generations complain that young people don’t appreciate the struggles their ancestors made for their rights. But who will help them understand if we don’t? It is up to those who were around back then to educate the Millennials on the price that has been paid for their freedom. We dishonor the hard work of those who fought for us when we remain silent. We owe a huge debt to them, and so do our children and grandchildren.
The best way to keep this legacy alive is to get young people engaged. Although the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, there are some who would love to take our rights away.
In June 2013, in a 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court severely weakened the Voting Rights Act. Southern states created a plethora of new laws during the 2012 general election designed to make it harder for women, seniors, young people and minorities to vote. So there is plenty of work still to be done. Change is slow, and one cannot “legislate” the heart.
I hope you will take the time to talk to a young person in your life this 4th of July weekend about the Voting Rights Act, what it means to America today, and how it was inspired by injustices faced by black people in the past. Independence Day means independence from discrimination in America, not just from England.