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Text and Meaning in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (part 1 of 3)

“We must not approach the observance and enforcement of this law in a vengeful spirit. Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions--divisions which have all lasted too long. Its purpose is national, not regional. Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.”–President Lyndon B. Johnson (Remarks upon Signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964)

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as Martin Luther King Jr. and other supporters look on.
Library of Congress

Because so many social and political turning points took place in the United States during the 1960s, the country in recent years has observed a number of important historical milestones and continues to do so in 2014. One such milestone is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The act became a law July 2, 1964, making the official anniversary date July 2, 2014. Awareness of that date is particularly significant for many reasons, among them the following:

  1. It commemorates one the greatest triumphs of those who dedicated their lives to transforming America from a racially oppressive society to an exemplary democratic one, including: heroes of the Harlem Renaissance, President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, human rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and millions of American citizens themselves.
  2. It helps shape the context in which discussions of the act’s validity and relevance is currently taking place. This includes ongoing responses to the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to remove from the Voting Rights Act of 1965––the passage of which was made possible by gains accomplished the previous year––a key provision requiring specific states to obtain federal approval before changing their election laws. In addition, it is wholly relevant to the current Chief Justice John Roberts’ contention that “the whole point of ... the (Constitution's) Equal Protection Clause is to take race off the table."
  3. Observations of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 help to further clarify precisely what is at stake not only as Americans prepare to cast ballots for the 2014 mid-term elections, but as people in countries around the world (Syria, Ukraine, Egypt, South Africa, and elsewhere) continue to look toward the United States as a political and moral template for the establishment of greater liberty within their own homelands.

To Level the Playing Field

The language of the Civil rights Act of 1964, formally declared Public Law 88-352, is straightforward enough that it doesn’t really matter whether you read it on an iPad, a Kindle Reader, or a Nook:

“To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.”

This one concise paragraph makes the intent behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964 clear enough. It is, as President Barack Obama often likes to say, “to level the playing field’ when it comes to that greatly-cherished American right to pursue individual happiness.

NEXT: Text and Meaning in The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Part 2

by Aberjhani
author of The Wisdom of W.E.B. DuBois
and The River of Winged Dreams

More on The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Aberjhani’s Text and Meaning Series

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