President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and others, look on.

Fifty years ago, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act on July 2, signaling a sea change in American society. “That Act absolutely transformed America,” said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She added, “It is most possibly one of the most radical pieces of legislation in the world.”

IN 1963, when the CRA was introduced and being debated in Congress, America was a country still steeped in segregation. It was still legal to refuse to serve Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians at restaurants and in hotels … to deny people transit on private transportation … to deny women access to certain jobs. Workplaces were segregated, colleges banned women from matriculating, and interracial gatherings – and relationships – were still outlawed in some places.

“Today, we can walk down the street and share the sidewalks and Blacks don’t have to give way to Whites,” Arnwine said. Women comprise the majority of college graduates and can pursue careers in fields from which they were previously barred, and those advancements were all because of the Civil Rights Act, she added.

But, even then the fight for equal rights and opportunity continued to be waged. “A lot of Americans walk around thinking that the society became the way it looks today naturally,” Arnwine said. They don’t understand it took two-to-three decades of litigation to change this society. “We had to sue almost every police department, fire department, restaurants, hotels – everybody – before people started to accept that the laws had changed.”

Even with those victories there were losses – but that’s par for the course in the history of the civil rights struggle, said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel, NAACP Legal and Education Defense Fund.

“We go through cycles in this nation,” she said. “We experience periods of tremendous progress in terms of opening doors of opportunity for all. And then we go through periods of retrenchment. Part of the job of people who work in civil rights advocacy and lawyering is to catch the wave. We have to properly diagnose the times that we are in and deploy our resources appropriately.”

For example, in 1994 – 30 years after the CRA was passed – Denny’s, a national restaurant chain, had to pay more than $54 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by thousands of Black customers who had been denied service, forced to wait for hours, or paid more than White customers.

Almost a decade later, on April 24, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling in Alexander v. Sandoval that dismantled one of the CRA’s most effective weapons for fighting discrimination. Under the 5-4 decision, private parties could only bring complaints under Title VI for intentional discrimination and not for actions or policies that have a discriminatory impact. Due to that decision, Arnwine said, a lot of discrimination is “going unchallenged.”

And there are other signs of retrogression. “In the case of employment, for example, we see people using proxies for race ” such as using bad credit and arrest records – which African Americans are more likely to have – as black marks during job applications, Arnwine said. “We’ve had to sue companies who say they will only hire ‘All-American’ workers. Too often when they say ‘All-American’ they mean White-skinned and blue-eyed.”

In the broader civil rights landscape, even as the country is commemorating a half-century of the Civil Rights Act, it also marks the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which gutted Section 4 and Section 5 of the {Voting Rights Act}.

Arnwine called Shelby a “horrible tragedy” and a faulty decision that ignored realities such as sweeping cases of voter suppression. Ifill said the decision has hobbled civil rights groups in their fight to ensure equal access to the ballot. “Since Shelby one of the most important things we’ve lost is notice,” she said. “Before the Shelby case, we had a robust Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required preclearance, so we learned about any voting changes that jurisdictions in the South planned to make.”

Now, activists have to rely on voters and community groups to alert them to any potentially discriminatory or adverse election changes. “It has put an incredible amount of pressure on community groups and civil rights groups,” Ifill said, though groups like the Lawyers’ Committee and the LDF continue to wage those battles.

In their decision, the Supreme Court justices directed Congress to recalibrate Section 4, the formula used to determine which jurisdictions are covered under Section 5. On June 25 – one year after the decision – the first hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act was held in the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We have some serious issues in Washington and one of them is that our Congress in quite partisan and quite paralyzed,” Ifill said of the delay.

Beyond its molasses-slow advancement, the legislation faces other barriers, such as the lack of any current Republican support in the Senate. A lot of the opposition was a result of “misinformation” spread by detractors of the bill, said Ifill, the only national civil rights leader to testify at the hearing. “For example, several Republican senators asked, ‘Why does this bill target my state?’ So, I had to clarify this bill has a nationwide scope; there is no geographic focus.”

Both Ifill and Arnwine said the bill will only gain momentum if Americans all over the nation speak up. “The Congress needs to hear from us – the Black, Hispanic and Native-American communities that are affected by these laws – and from White Americans who are embarrassed and distressed that legislators are engaging in explicit efforts to keep certain people from voting,” Ifill said.

“This could still happen this summer but Congress, especially the House, is not going to move without hearing from their constituents,” she added. “People have to wake up.”

*Special Edition* – 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act: July 2

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO