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Text and Meaning in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (part 2 of 3)

“Most philosophers see the ship of state launched on the broad irresistible tide of democracy, with only delaying eddies here and there; others, looking closer, are more disturbed.” ––W.E.B. DuBois (from quotation collection The Wisdom of W.E.B. DuBois)

The book "When Your Parachute is Black" addresses one the most chronic faced during the 1960 Civil Rights Movement: unemployment among African Americans.

Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson shared, among others, these remarks: “We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings--not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.”

In fact, race was only one of the issues the act addressed. It also confronted discrimination based on religion, gender, and national origins. Many would, and do, argue that President Johnson’s remarks are no longer applicable in the 21st century. Many would, and do, argue that the words of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 itself should no longer matter.

Yet they mattered enough to President Johnson that he reportedly signed it with 75 different pens, presenting one each to those who had supported the bill, including Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr. The pens undoubtedly were intended to help commemorate the achievement but perhaps they also served to reinforce the commitment and accountability necessary to make the political gesture a functional democratic reality.

Shared Multicultural Histories

Before the law’s implementation, America’s “Jim Crow” version of apartheid ensured that opportunities for social, political, and economic advancement would always be available to one group of citizens but always questionable in regard to another.

The shared multicultural histories of Americans’ blood spilled on battlefields, children raised in the same homes and classrooms, and centuries of working side by side to build the country so frequently hailed as the greatest in the world should have accomplished something permanent by now. It should by now have made race as irrelevant as whether one unrolls toilet paper from the bottom or the top of a spool.

Many prefer the idea that it, race, truly is irrelevant to such a degree. However, if that were the case, it is very unlikely that in just the past few years and months the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Troy Anthony Davis, Kendrick “K.J.” Johnson, and others less-known (as in less publicized) would weight so heavily on the nation’s conscience. Nor would such blatant injustices as the 42-year wrongful imprisonment of Louis C. Taylor.

When Your Parachute is Black

Moreover, whether opportunities are equal when it comes to education and employment is less a matter of debate than it is a simple acknowledgement of the kind of observations pointed out by Dr. William M. White in the newly-released book, When Your Parachute is Black. While noting the “chronic” unemployment and under-employment rates African Americans have endured for decades, Dr. White also provides strategies for breaking the destructive cycle rather than relying on legislation or hand-outs. Even so, the book is a clear reminder of why civil rights and affirmative action initiatives continue to win social and political support.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 laid the foundation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but it also addressed nearly every other aspect of daily life in a would-be free democratic society. The more essential among them are as crucial in 2014, when it comes to determining an individual or a people’s quality of life, as they were in 1964. The dramatic reenactment of the 1963 March on Washington during its 50th anniversary in 2013 reminded the nation of just how much was gained during the 1960s and how much now stands to be lost.

NEXT: Text and Meaning in The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Part 3

by Aberjhani
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

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

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