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July 01, 2004

Introduction: A Time for Tribute; A Time for Action

We extend our thanks to Stephen J. Wermiel and Robert E. Stein for their assistance as special issue editors of the Summer 2004 magazine.

This year, the American Bar Association (ABA) celebrates two crucial anniversaries: the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The two events bookend nearly a decade of unprecedented activity in the modern civil rights era. In many ways, the Brown decision led to the creation and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Act). While signing the bill, President Lyndon Johnson eloquently described its significance:

We believe that all men are created equal—yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain inalienable rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty—yet millions are deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skins.

The reasons are deeply embedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand without rancor or hatred how all this happens. But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I sign tonight forbids it.

The social and legal changes that took place from Reconstruction to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act contextualize both the achievements and the still-unfulfilled promises of the Act. In 1866 the nation’s first Civil Rights Act declared “all persons” entitled to equal protection of state, territorial, and federal laws. Criminal enforcement was the only way to implement these rights. In 1871 civil enforcement remedies were added to the legislation, making it possible to bring suit against a person who violated one’s civil rights. But the success of these measures, if any, was stifled in the South, where so-called “Black Codes” quickly hardened into Jim Crow restrictions, remaining largely unchanged for years—until Brown. In 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed long-standing precedent and declared “separate but equal” public schools unconstitutional. However, in the very next year, the Court held that the implementation of equality could proceed only with “deliberate speed.” The reaction was dramatic as the modern civil rights movement shifted into a higher gear.

The movement was alive, energized, determined, and integrated. In 1955 the Montgomery bus boycott began when Rosa Parks, an African American seamstress, was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white man at the end of a long, hard day. In 1957, while Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the Little Rock school desegregation demonstrations (many would say riots) forced the administration to mobilize the Arkansas National Guard to protect the nine African American children attempting to simply go to school at Little Rock High School. In 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, brought people from around the country to challenge segregation in places of public accommodation.

Eventually, protests galvanized the country. Martin Luther King Jr. became a major voice of the civil rights movement, leading demonstrations in Birmingham and a march between Birmingham and Selma in pursuit of equality for all people. Violence and death took an astounding toll. In 1962 African American student James Meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi, sparking riots that resulted in two deaths and hundreds of injuries. In 1963 Medgar Evers, a Mississippi field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was murdered in his own driveway. William Moore, a white postman traveling across the South wearing an antisegregation sandwich board, was killed in Alabama. Four young black girls died in a Sunday morning bombing of a Birmingham church. The year came to its dreadful close with the November assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The United States and the world watched all of these events on the television news. The conscience of a country changed, slowly but irrevocably.

In June 1963 President Kennedy had asked Congress for a comprehensive Civil Rights Act dealing with voting rights, public accommodations, desegregation of public schools, establishment of a Community Relations Service, continuation of the Civil Rights Commission, nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs, and formation of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After Kennedy’s assassination, Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. As a southerner, and former majority leader in the Senate, Johnson knew how to maneuver and compromise to get a bill passed. In substantial part because of his efforts, and undoubtedly because of the changes in attitude brought on by the civil rights movement, President Johnson signed the most comprehensive Civil Rights Act in our nation’s history on July 3, 1964.

Full equality and full application of the principles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act still elude many groups. Some have obtained protection through the passage of separate specific legislation, often patterned on the Act. Others still seek relief under the plain words of the Act, but have yet to succeed. In either case, we have work to do to realize the full promise of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This issue of Human Rights suggests some areas for future action. Others no doubt exist as well. The American Bar Association and its Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities invite you to join us in working together to realize the full promise of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—the promise of true equality for all people.

Dennis W. Archer, former Detroit mayor and Michigan Supreme Court justice, is the first person of color elected as president of ABA. He is chairman of Dickinson Wright PLLC. Joan F. Kessler, a former partner in Foley & Lardner, LLP, is chair of the ABA’s Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. She is a judge on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.