Rights act took a giant step, but journey is unfinished
Groups see gains, gaps in 40 years of landmark law
BALTIMORE -- For President Lyndon Johnson and the mostly white congressional majority he helped assemble, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a triumphant step toward racial justice. In Carolyn Mattocks's American history classes, the act's legacy is not so simple.
''The civil rights movement was a wonderful movement, but we as a people did not take it as far as we should have," said Mattocks, 35, who teaches adult students at inner-city Baltimore's predominantly black Sojourner-Douglass College.
''There's still unfinished business," Mattocks said, referring to persistent social inequities and divided black leadership. ''There's a duty that we as a younger generation have -- to finish that business."
By any measure, the Civil Rights Act was momentous. Signed by Johnson on July 2, 1964, after a record two-month filibuster by Southern senators, the act's key provisions banned segregation in any facility offering public services and outlawed discrimination in hiring.
''Together, those two provisions led to a veritable sea change in the way Americans conducted their lives," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Henderson was a high school student in Washington, D.C., when the act was passed. He encountered segregation in the capital firsthand as a boy, and recalls help-wanted ads in the newspapers that specified whether blacks or whites should apply.
''The little indignities of legal segregation really gnawed away at how you saw yourself and how you saw American democracy," Henderson said. ''The Civil Rights Act had a profoundly transformative effect, especially in the workplace -- it's now the place most Americans encounter people of different races and ethnicities."
In the ensuing four decades, black Americans have made tremendous strides. Their poverty rate has dropped by nearly half; rates of high school graduation and home ownership have soared; blacks preside over prestigious universities, major corporations, the State Department, and the American Bar Association.
Glaring gaps remain. A recent National Urban League report said black Americans' earning power is only 73 percent of whites and their life expectancy is six years less. Predominantly black public schools are often badly underfunded, compared with mostly white schools, and incarceration rates for blacks are higher now than in 1964.
According to one recent study in the American Sociological Review, more young black men have done time in prison than have served in the military or earned a college degree. Nationally, about 13 percent of black men -- 1.4 million in all -- are ineligible to vote because of criminal records.
''I should have thought that everyone, even down to ex-felons, would be able to realize the American dream, but that's not true," said Clayton Guyton, who assists ex-offenders at Baltimore's Rose Street Community Center.
The Civil Rights Act resulted from years of relentless campaigning by civil leaders, whose protest marches in the South often provoked brutal responses from the defenders of segregation.
President John F. Kennedy, who earlier in his political career had sometimes been cautious about racial issues, addressed Congress in June 1963 to urge passage of a sweeping civil rights bill. Martin Luther King Jr. led a historic march in Washington that August. After Kennedy's assassination that November, Johnson took up the cause.
The longest-serving black in Congress, Democrat John Conyers of Detroit, was first elected in November 1964. The next year, he helped win approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. ''There's a lot of work still to be done," Conyers said in a telephone interview. ''In Detroit you've got high unemployment, a poverty rate of at least 30 percent, high illiteracy. You can't fix one problem by itself -- they're all connected."