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50 Years Later, No Time for Complacency

April 3, 2014

Published in: Morgan State University Global Journalism Review Issue 02/Winter2014
By: Barbara R. Arnwine
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After decades of struggling for the enactment of transformative anti­ discrimination laws, the landmark Civil Rights Act was enacted on July 2, 1964. This critical legislation outlawed major forms of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin and religion. Although he would not live to see the legislation enacted, President John F. Kennedy, in his Address to the Nation on Civil Rights on June 11, 1963, made catalytic remarks calling for legislation to end formal racial discrimination in public facilities, schools and other areas of American society. Kennedy included in his poignant speech some astounding statistics: “The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one­ third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one­ seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year or more, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.”

A little more than eight months after Kennedy’s assassination, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson skillfully guided the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. This legislation addressed the critical issues that Kennedy raised in his speech in addition to several others. The act consists of 11 titles that include protections for voting rights, prohibitions against and remedies for discrimination in public facilities, orders for desegregation in public schools and facilities and proscriptions against employment discrimination. The act also created entities to facilitate the implementation of the legislation including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Community Relations Service.

One of the most metamorphic components of the Act was Title VI, a powerful tool for the Lawyers’ Committee and other civil rights advocates, which prohibited discrimination in programs and activities that receive federal funds or other forms of federal financial assistance. Title VI has been the crux of key litigation in the areas of environmental justice, education and fair housing, just to name a few.

Unfortunately, Title VI was severely weakened in 2001 in Alexander v.  Sandoval, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no private right of action exists to enforce disparate impact regulations. Basically the ruling provided that only those impacted by deliberate discrimination had legal recourse. Anyone hurt by a practice that had an unintended discriminatory effect on the basis of race or ethnicity was not protected by Title VI.  Sandoval created a significant barrier to private parties seeking to bring disparate impact claims as they were left without a cause of action.


Another key component of the Act was Title II, which prohibits discrimination in certain places of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, and places of entertainment. The Lawyers ‘ Committee has brought many public accommodations cases and we still see public accommodations cases arise. Most recently, the Lawyers’ Committee filed suit in Hardie v. NCAA arguing that the NCAA’s policy permanently banning all individuals with a felony conviction from coaching in NCAA-certified high school events violates Title II. Two major areas where racial discrimination continues to be prevalent, and are addressed by the Civil Rights Act include education and employment, both of which President Kennedy addressed in his 1963 speech. Another major area of focus for the act is the protection of voting rights for all Americans.  It is important to take a moment to reflect on how far we have come since Kennedy’s famous speech and the passage of the Civil Rights Act nearly 50 years ago and determine how far we still need to go and how to get there, especially in the realm of educational opportunity and desegregation.

Since Kennedy’s 1963 speech, the educational gap between the races is not ideal, but it has improved. In 2011, the high school dropout rate was 7 percent for African­ Americans and 14 percent for Latinos compared to 5 percent for whites. As for bachelor’s degrees, 19.9 percent of African -Americans between the ages of 25-34 held these degrees versus 37.7 percent of whites in the same age cohort.

However, the United States has not reached racial equilibrium in educational attainment or desegregation. In fact, just last year, the Lawyers’ Committee filed and won a case against the state of Maryland in The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, et al. v. Maryland Higher Education Commission, et al., for failing to dismantle the vestiges of segregation from its system of higher education. The Court found that Maryland violated the constitutional rights of students at Maryland’s four Historically Black Institutions (including Morgan State University) by unnecessarily duplicating their programs at nearby white institutions.

Employment opportunity and wage equality occupy another major segment of the Civil Rights Act. There has been some positive movement since 1964 on this front.  The Civil Rights Act created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which gave a voice and a potential remedy for hundreds of thousands of victims of employment discrimination. This provision became the sword of the civil rights legal movement in attacking and dismantling barriers to employment. On the negative side, according to a 2012 Economic Policy Institute study, the unemployment rate for African-Americans has been double that of whites since 1963. Sadly, President Kennedy’s statement that an African-American has twice as much chance of becoming unemployed still rings true today.

In addition, there is a large income gap between white and African-American households. In 2012, the median income for non-Hispanic white households was $57,009 while African-American households median income was $33, 321. The Lawyers’ Committee’s Employment Discrimination Project is tasked with working to break down these disparities and practices by filing litigation on behalf of those who have been discriminated against.  For example, one of the Lawyers’ Committee’s current cases, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Jacksonville Branch and the Jacksonville Brotherhood of firefighters, A Chapter of the International Association of the African­ American Professional Firefighters v. The Consolidated City of Jacksonville, filed in February 2013 against the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department alleges discrimination in hiring, assignments, transfer and the creation of a hostile work environment.  The Lawyers’ Committee also recently held a training session and issued a report on best practices for the use of criminal records in hiring.


The first title of the Civil Rights Act addresses voting rights and prohibits literacy tests and other mechanisms used to hinder a citizen’s right to vote.  These protections were supplemented by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which included in its arsenal of groundbreaking protections, a preclearance on any voting registration or administration change could be made for states who traditionally were perpetrators of racial discrimination in voting. The preclearance process and other mandates of the Civil Rights and Voting Right s Acts broke down many barriers for minority voters and contributed to increased voter registration. However, in June 2013, the Supreme Court decided Shelby County v. Holder and delivered a devastating setback for civil rights in America.

The Court ruled that the coverage formula in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, essentially paralyzing the federal review (preclearance) of changes to voting procedures under Section 5. Section 5 was critical because it required states with a history of discrimination that were fully or partially covered by the law to prove that any proposed changes to current voting procedures were not discriminatory before they were allowed to take effect.

Although there are no longer literacy tests or poll taxes, in a post-Shelby world, new voter suppression methods such as voter identification requirements are rebuilding significant barriers to the minority vote. The Lawyers’ Committee has brought several suits against states including Texas and Arizona to tear down these barriers.  In addition, the Lawyers’ Committee’s Election Protection Program provides Americans all over the country with comprehensive voter information and advice on how they can make sure their vote is counted.

As we reflect upon the legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including the many pathways it created for women, nearly 50 years after its enactment, we must rejoice on how far this nation has moved toward the goal of racial justice.  However, we must not become complacent in our quest for this ideal. Much work remains to achieve equity and fairness in this nation. One day the check that was written with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will finally be cashed in full.

University of Baltimore School of Law third year law student and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law intern. Laura Hunt contributed to this article.



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