How well did the Civil Rights Act live up to its promise? : Consider This from NPR (2024)

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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How well did the Civil Rights Act live up to its promise? : Consider This from NPR (2)

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

AFP via Getty Images

In the summer of 1963, an estimated quarter of a million people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington.

It was where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic 'I have a dream' speech. And listening in the crowd was civil rights activist Cortland Cox.

Cox was a founding member of the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee – or SNCC, and was one of many Black activists who helped organize the march.

"The March on Washington only took six weeks to organize," Cox recalled. "But one of the only reasons it took six weeks to organize is that Black people by that time had been going through demonstrations for three years: sit-ins, freedom rides and so forth, and they were sick and tired of being sick and tired."

During this time, Cox was working to register Black people to vote in the south. It was dangerous work for Cox and dangerous for Black people who wanted to vote.

The right to vote was one of the many reasons people of all races gathered at the March on Washington. They were protesting against discrimination and segregation based on race, and demanding civil rights regardless of skin color. And soon after, it yielded an outcome they had been fighting for.

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The Civil Rights Act

The march was a precursor to the historic signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who said the bill was "a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country."

It was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, and outlawed discrimination on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin

It also made tactics aimed at preventing Black people from voting, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, illegal.

But Cox, like many other activists, says that the bill wasn't enough to resolve everything. Not then, and not now.

"These things were just not landmarks that created new environments. They allowed for new opportunities, but they didn't change the total environment. I mean, what would change the environment was our willingness to continue to fight."

The decades after

So has this legislation continued to fulfill its initial goal, 60 years on? Lerone Martin, the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University says the answer varies.

Civil Rights Act turns 60: Activist Elaine Lee Turner reflects

Martin believes that, while the bill was able to fundamentally change what citizenship meant in the U.S., there are signs that some want to restrict the freedoms it has afforded so many Americans.

"I think we are seeing in this country, certain parts, that want to argue that religious freedom is a license to discriminate against people based on race, sex or national origin or religious belief," Martin says. "And I think that we have to be careful with this, because of all the effort and all the work that went into creating this vision of an America where all are created equal, that there is a danger of some of this being rolled back today."

When it comes to the legacy of the civil rights bill, Martin says it should serve as a reminder of how important it is to build a coalition of people from all backgrounds that believe the U.S. should be equal for all people.

"I think that we have to remember that this was not inevitable, that this did not have to happen. It took people coming together and demonstrating nonviolently in the streets and pressing and moving their elected officials to vote according to the will of the people," he says.

"And I think that's an important legacy for us to remember, because it's very, very, very, very possible for this legislation to be clipped and rolled back and anesthetized and made anemic to the point where it no longer has any teeth."

This episode was produced by Brianna Scott, Jordan-Marie Smith and Linnea Anderson. It was edited by Jeanette Woods and Christopher Intagliata. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.

How well did the Civil Rights Act live up to its promise? : Consider This from NPR (2024)
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