Sunday, April 6, 2014

Civil Rights Act of 1964 - Fiftieth Anniversary

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 one-half Century ago, an African American baby born that year would become the country's first black president.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Others Witness  President Lyndon Johnson Sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Others Witness
President Lyndon Johnson
Sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ten years after Rosa Parks started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, administered by Martin Luther King; and ten years after the U.S. Supreme struck down public segregation in Brown v the Board of Education. 

Then why are we still talking about civil rights, voting rights and equality?

Because these issues still affect American life, making them topics that are still as relevant to American conversation as they were when the civil rights case, named after Linda Brown, a little girl about my age, in 1954, helped to win for African Americans the most sweeping changes in U.S. society since the Civil War. Brown v the Board of Education was decided in May 1954. I was five years old and my mother wondered where I would go to school that next year. Well, she didn't have to wonder long. I went to the same segregated school my older cousins had attended. That Brown decision and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Rosa Parks, made a great deal of difference on the law books, but made no significant difference at the personal level of my life. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 sounded great on paper, but how would it translate on the streets where I lived?

After Reconstruction, former slaves had been promised civil rights, the vote and other weapons against the old Slave Code system, which affected slaves, free African Americans and others with too much color, kink, culture divergence, religious difference and language difficulty. Reconstruction Amendments gave rise to another system: Jim Crow laws, perpetuated by organized racist terrorist groups that infiltrated all levels of U.S. government. The vestiges of a society founded upon and soiled by racial violence and injustice that has led us to where we are today, in spite of the convoluted web of  legal struggles this nation has endured. 

My mother always said, "You don't have to love me to be my neighbor, but you do have to give me the respect I have earned." 

Has the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed one year after Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream Speechaccomplished what was intended? If so, why are so many U.S. citizens isolated in segregated pockets, trapped in virtual slavery in low paying jobs and no health care and sending their children to dangerous inferior places every morning in the name of education? U.S. cities burned to the bone in the 1960s, attributable to racial isolation, virtual slavery, low paying jobs, no health care, dangerous inferior schools, no hope--ignored by conservatives and misunderstood by liberals? I moved to Baltimore in 1971 and saw all the signs of riots not forgotten. Even Los Angeles, California, bears scars of violent unrest during the 1960s.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2, 1964, I would turn 15 years old in a couple of days and not without political opinions of my own. Although, afraid to be too hopeful about this new turn in American history, I waited along with my opinionated friends in Denver, where I was spending the summer with relatives. My mother sent me away every summer to someplace in the North of West to escape Jim Crow laws. "You have to know there is more to life than segregation," she said.

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Poverty and Social Class

Poor Appalachian white child
The Greatest Number of Poor People in the United States
Are Not People of Color

Consequently, we are still steeped in deep concentration over the same societal ills and prejudices against those who find themselves and their children being left without adequate food, housing, clothing, preparation for decent jobs and resources to arrive at those jobs. And these conditions have nothing to do with the original purpose of Jim Crow laws, setup after the Civil War to deprive former slaves of the rights they have won. These conditions are centered around poverty and social class.

homeless families live in hulled out trailers
Vehicle Living
There are homeless families living in broken-down cars and hulled out trailers, and sleeping in boxes under bridges right here in the U.S. Others are living from paycheck to paycheck waiting for a pink slip or an eviction for nonpayment of rent because the money was spend on baby food, milk or cold medicine. Certainly, this is not what Lyndon Johnson meant to happen when he declared war on poverty or what Martin Luther King hoped for in his I Have a Dream Speech.

homeless families live in hulled out trailers
Vehicle Living
The biggest differences I see are the ever increasing varying shades of poverty. Historically, people of all races have been left behind with poor or no education, prison records, low or no jobs, unsatisfactory shelter that can hardly be called housing far from potential employment and, some cities, no reliable public transportation. 

Substandard Housing

Crowded, Unsanitary & Without Utilities
Just the other day, I saw on my local news a story about substandard housing, a building that called itself an apartment complex that was being held together by single nails and plaster from a can. 

There were no working toilets, no fire alarms or fire escapes, no windows in bedrooms, no garbage pickup, no cars ownership and no grocery stores within walking distance. When discovered, the landlord was told to close the building and the tenants were given notice to leave. Now, they will be homeless. There are so many instances of substandard housing in the United States that they are difficult to track. From inner-cities across the nation to the hills of Appalachia to migrant farms scattered throughout the south and west. Some of the worse substandard housing is occupied by migrant farm workers and their families. These dwellings may as well be in poverty-stricken  third-world nations on the other side of the earth. But they are here at home in the land of more than plenty.

Income, class and social status have been complicating factors in race relations since the beginning of the nation. More associated with race in the past, income, class and social status create the widening gulf in American society today. The have-nots include more than people of color and always have. But today, as in the past, white have-nots have been pitted against people of color to prevent their coalition into a formidable voting block and to deflect attention from those at the top of the political food chain. 

It seems that optimism emerges from the ability to vote, get a job, buy a home, educate the kids and exercise their rights as citizens of the United States. Although there is much to be done in the area of equality, evidence can be seen in public opinion polls that attitudes have changed among nonwhites. "...the gap between whites' and nonwhites' views of where the country stands is wider than at any point in recent history, with nonwhites now almost twice as likely as whites to view the nation's situation positively," according to a recent Gallup poll on race, which indicates that nonwhite Americans are more optimistic about race relations than white Americans.  

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A little civil rights history may be in order here.

The Civil Rights Act was based on plans drawn up by President John F. Kennedy, who, on June 11, 1963, unveiled his civil rights plan in a nationally speech on the brand new medium that had helped him to get elected over the sweaty, nervous, un-photogenic Richard Nixon. My mother had insisted I watch the debate, which won over some of our Lincoln Republicans neighbors for Kennedy. My mother never turned anyone away when there was a national event. 

"There is no way I can vote for Nixon," said our neighbor, Sugar, who grew a vegetable garden that he shared with anyone who walked past his house. "He looks like a liar," Sugar said. "His whole face is wet and his eyes look like two sunken ant hills between my rows of collard greens." 

My mother said, "They're politicians; they're both liars; all politicians are liars. And Kennedy isn't that good looking." Bigmama said, "But Kennedy is a lot better looking than Nixon." The whole room laughed in agreement, even the kids, especially the girls. "Now everybody be quiet," my mother scolded. "You people are making me miss the debate."

John F. Kennedy Inauguration Speech
John F. Kennedy Inauguration Speech

We all watched the replay of the JFK speech on evening news--me, my mother, my father and my grandmother. Our tiny living room was also filled with neighbors who did not have televisions sitting in chairs and on the floor in front of the strange little tube projecting from a large wooden box in the corner. "What is that contraption, Bigmama had asked when my mother as she showed the delivery men 

Later, I remember being awed by his inauguration speech. He made me want to go out and do something for my country! And I was only 11 years old. He made me feel that things were going to change because he was now president. It didn't matter that my mother and some of the adults in my life had doubts about his sincerity. 

President John F. Kennedy
Vice President
Lyndon B. Johnson
"Kennedy is afraid of the South," Bigmama said. "That's why he picked Lyndon Johnson for his vice president. Johnson makes him look safe to the bigots down here. That's how he got elected--Johnson got him Texas."

"Everybody with any amount of sense is scared of the South," I heard Sugar tell Bigmama.

"Are you saying Johnson doesn't have any sense?" She asked. 

"Oh, hell no, Johnson's got sense and balls."

"Not in front of the children," Bigmama said. "But I agree."

John F. Kennedy's civil rights speech on June 11, 1963 was one month before my fourteenth birthday and just five months before his assassination. By the time Kennedy gave his civil rights speech, I recalled that most of my life had been spent up to that time waiting and hoping, like many of my ancestors had hoped, for a change in my condition and my future. 

Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was a hero in our community.

Rosa Parks
Montgomery Bus Boycott
I remember hearing my mother and Bigmama talk about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott before I started school. I didn't know what the Montgomery Bus Boycott was. And all I know about Rosa Parks was that she was a seamstress like Aunt Lucille. And, like Aunt Lucille, Rosa Parks was so much more than just a seamstress and she and Martin Luther King went to jail fighting something called Jim Crow laws. When I was very young, Bigmama taught me what Jim Crow laws meant in my life. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Bigmama thought it was time I knew something about American society.When I was four or five years old, she spelled out on a piece of paper colored and white only and told me what that meant. 

President John F. Kennedy Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
Memories of President Kennedy's striking image spewing fancy words on national television outlining his plans were burned into the African American psyche and would last through several succeeding generations. Kennedy's plan outlined what became Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the guts of Johnson's law, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. 

According to some, Kennedy came late and reluctantly into the struggle for the cause of civil rights. However, JFK did come into the discussion in a very public way, not only with lofty speeches, but, with the urging of his attorney general brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, ordering federal troops to protect black demonstrators in the South. To me, although I was young, this meant a new beginning for my people. I watched the police dog and fire hose attacks on school children in Birmingham, Alabama, and I wondered what it would take to make things right in this nation. Maybe Kennedy can do something, I thought.

Train passengers read John F. Kennedy Assassinated Newspaper headlines
John F. Kennedy Assassinated
Then, the unthinkable happened, sending the African American Community into mourning as if JFK was a member of our own familyPresident Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, of all places, not 200 miles north of us. Student and teachers had been assembled in the school auditorium to watch this momentous news coverage of the President's visit to Texas, along with his Vice President Lyndon Johnson of Texas, escorted by Texas Governor, John Connally. We were so devastated by the death of President Kennedy and the news media, as well, that there was hardly any word about forgotten Governor Connally, who lay close to death for several days.

Martin Luther Kin, Robert Kennedy, Roy Wilkins
President Lyndon Johnson
As hopeless as the situation seemed as we watched non stop coverage of the investigation and then the funeral, it wasn't entirely hopeless. We Still had Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. They would not let everything be lost. Too many lives, black and white, had been lost already--the president's, the four little girls in Birmingham, the three college students in Mississippi and the countless others over a century of civil rights struggle.

There had been lots of speculation about Lyndon Johnson when JFK picked him as his VP. My mother was an observer of American History and current national and local politics through national newspapers, magazines, radio and television news and other TV programming. 

"It was political," she told me. "There are so many deals going on under the table that it would make your head spin and not only in politics, in everything, at my job at your school. You remember that. Most things are not the way they seem.  And that goes for people, too. Like it or not, Johnson is the president, now."

She was right about President Johnson. He was not at all what he seemed. And it wasn't what he said or his lack of mastery of the English language that proved out who he was. It was his deeds. He called in every favor he'd left behind in the Senate, where he had been leader for so many years. He threatened to use sensitive information on politicians he knew. He bullied others. And the played on the sympathy for the late President Kennedy. All of this to get that Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. Why, you may ask? He seemed to be on a mission to make things right. 

Civil Rights Act of 1964 

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Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn’t Shop 
At Woolworth’s 
Sunny Nash

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Sunny Nash author of bigmama didn't shop at woolworth's
Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. She writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations.

Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

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Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America