The 50th Anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act serves as a time to reflect upon the vast and strong accomplishments to advance racial justice in America. This also serves as a critical time, however, to address the vestiges of racial discrimination and segregation which continue to plague this nation.
President John F. Kennedy’s June 11, 1963 nationally televised address on race relations, he declared civil rights a “moral issue” for the United States and promised a bill with “the kind of equality and treatment we would want for ourselves.” The next day Medgar Evers was tragically assassinated and soon after on June 21, 1963, President Kennedy convened 244 lawyers at the White House, calling for the formation of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to marshal the pro bono resources for the private bar to combat racial discrimination.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964 which outlawed major forms of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin and religion. The Act created entities to facilitate the implementation of this critical legislation including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Community Relations Service and consisted 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.
Certainly, the Act opened many doors for countless minorities, including women. However, we have a long way to go in realizing a more racially just and equal society.
Last week, for example, the Senate held a hearing on renewing the Voting Rights Act to repair the damage wrought by the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which gutted a key enforcement element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 known as Section 5. The fact that 2014 will be the first election in close to 50 years in which voters will head to the polls without any protection from discrimination is simply unacceptable.
That is why during the next five months, the Lawyers’ Committee, joined by its partners across the country, will embark on an aggressive and comprehensive campaign to inform and educate voters on their rights when they head to the voting booth this coming November.
In addition, eight times more African American children attend high-poverty schools than do white children; the unemployment rates for minorities remain in or bordering on double digits (African Americans at 11.5percent and Hispanics at 7.7 percent) while the unemployment rate for whites is 5.4 percent; poverty rates for African American and Hispanic families triple that of white families; and disparities in housing and lending, including foreclosures and loan modification scams, continue to attack communities of color; and African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of Whites.
In the spirit of the Act the Lawyers’ Committee continues to win cases for our clients. Just yesterday, the organization won a class certification for African American applicants in Houser et al. v. Pritzker, Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce, where the global use of arrest records by the U.S. Census Bureau to erect barriers to hundreds of thousands of applicants who sought positions as Census enumerators was in question.
In December 2013, the Lawyers’ Committee won a historic exclusionary zoning case, MHANY, et al., v. County of Nassau, and Village of Garden City, et al. The Court found that the intentionally discriminatory zoning practices adopted by Garden City had a disparate impact on minorities and tended to perpetuate segregation in that community.
The Lawyers’ Committee’s South Jersey Re-Entry Program, which provides educational advocacy on behalf of youth who have been disciplined or been involved in the criminal justice system in Camden and Atlantic City, won its first contested hearing in April 2014 on behalf of a student who had been referred to law enforcement and illegally excluded from three consecutive schools. Due to the organization’s intervention, he has successfully graduated from high school this year.
These are just a few examples of the Lawyers’ Committee’s critical efforts in “Moving America Toward Justice” and combating racial discrimination and inequality. The signing of the pivotal Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains a guide as we confront any threats or limitations to the liberties of race and gender that we enjoy in America today. We must work to ensure that the vision of President Kennedy and the later work of President Lyndon Johnson to overcome these barriers 50 years ago empower us to fight for justice and equality today, tomorrow and for future generations to come.