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Library of Congress honors 1964 Civil Rights Act with inspiring exhibit

Segregation in public accommodations. Sign: 'NO DOGS, NEGROES, MEXICANS'. Lonestar Restaurant Association, Dallas. In Library Congress exhibit 'The Civil Rights Act of 1964'.
Segregation in public accommodations. Sign: 'NO DOGS, NEGROES, MEXICANS'. Lonestar Restaurant Association, Dallas. In Library Congress exhibit 'The Civil Rights Act of 1964'. Segregation sign (Jim Crow). Lonestar Restaurant Assn., Dallas. (1929?) Manuscript Div., Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has opened a must-see exhibit, "The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom", with more than 200 items highlighting the landmark legislation's background and its impact, as the struggle continues.

Flag flown from NAACP headquarters in NYC after every lynching. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records, Library of Congress.
Flag flown from NAACP headquarters in NYC after every lynching. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records, Library of Congress. Flag flown from NAACP headquarters in NYC after every lynching of an African American man. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records, Library of Congress.

At a special reception for the exhibit Sept. 9, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced that the Rosa Parks Collection of some 1,500 items is being loaned to the Library for ten years by Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Howard Buffett recently bought the archive that had been in a warehouse, unseen, for years during an extended court battle.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in employment and in public accommodations. It also outlawed segregation in public education and unequal application of voter-registration requirements. It laid the legal foundation for further progress in the acquisition and protection of civil rights -- an ever-continuing effort.

The exhibit's items include correspondence and documents from civil rights leaders and organizations, photographs, newspapers, legal briefs, drawings and posters. Audio-visual stations will feature 77 clips showing sit-ins, boycotts, and other protests against segregation and additional types of discrimination.

Some of the inspiring exhibit can be viewed online at http://loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/

Highlights of the free exhibit, that will run for a year at the Library, include:

  • A dramatic work based on the testimonies of former slaves, written by Ossie Davis and performed by Davis and his wife, celebrated actor Ruby Dee (who died at age 91 in June).
  • The huge black and white flag announcing "A man was lynched yesterday", flown outside NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) headquarters in New York City after each lynching of an African American.
  • A recorded autobiography by W. E. B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP.
  • Jackie Robinson's press conference after his first season breaking the color barrier in major league baseball, 1947.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren's reading copy of the Brown v. Board of Education opinion. He read the decision on May 14, 1954: "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal..."
  • Rosa Parks' arrest record from the day she refused give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her Dec. 1, 1955 arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that lasted 381 days, and captured world attention. The boycott was led by 26-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said Parks was anchored to that bus seat "by the accumulated indignities of days gone by, and the countless aspirations of generations yet unborn."
  • Film footage of Oval Office deliberations before President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 national television address on civil rights, and a debate about Kennedy's speech among black leaders, including Malcolm X. (On June 30 at a rally in Harlem, Malcolm X assailed President Kennedy.)

The exhibit has six sections: Prologue, Segregation Era, World War II and the Post-War Years, Civil Rights Era, Civil Rights Act of 1964, and The Impact.

  • Prologue spans the course of the country's race relations, from African Americans' participation in the Revolutionary War, through the first decade of the 20th century. One focus is Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 ruling that sanctioned segregation by upholding the doctrine of "separate but equal."
  • Segregation Era explores the founding of the NAACP by black and white activists in 1909. The section also examines the escalation of racial violence.
  • World War II and the Post-War Years delves into civil rights initiatives, minorities in the military, and the founding of civil rights organizations from 1940 to 1949. It features the Fair Employment Practices Committee, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt established, and President Harry Truman's two 1948 executive orders banning discrimination in federal employment and in the armed forces.
  • The Civil Rights Era focuses on events and achievements of civil rights leaders and citizen-activists from 1950 to 1963. Pivotal events include the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the March on Washington. A wide variety of civil rights-inspired songs—gospel, folk, jazz, rock, and pop—will be heard here.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 examines the culmination of efforts from private citizens, organizations, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the House and Senate leadership and members of the U.S. Congress.
  • The Impact section explores the ongoing struggle for a just and inclusive American society. It also looks at the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the numerous civilian and legal actions that continue today. (Just one example: the 1965 Voting Rights Act was essentially gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.)

This long look backward helps illuminate the long struggles of the past, and the way forward.

For more info: "The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom", Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, second floor, Southwest Gallery, 10 First Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. Free, year-long exhibition Sept. 10 through Sept. 12, 2015. Also online, http://loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/