Unfinished Business: The Legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964: A SUMMER REPORTING PROJECT represents the efforts of a quarter-long enterprise reporting capstone in the Chicago and Washington newsrooms of the Medill School at Northwestern University. Graduate student reporters examined the impact of the 50-year-old law aimed at rectifying discriminatory practices against minorities and women in the public sphere. Because reporting opportunities on this topic are so vast, reporting efforts focused on workplace discrimination, housing and technology.
Since the passage of the ’64 law, the legislation has produced mixed results. Efforts to open public accommodations to all races, for example, are widely considered a success. However, blacks still earn significantly less than whites despite improvements in job opportunities. Many still face difficulties in registering to vote and casting ballots. In fact, a Pew Research Center study shows 45 percent of Americans say the country has made progress toward racial equality and 49 percent say much more progress needs to be made.
Despite significant gains, women continue to experience workplace discrimination and income inequality, which prompted President Barack Obama in 2009 to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Act, name for a longtime employee who sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Future challenges facing the nation’s legislators include issues such as the racial and ethnic disparity in incarceration rates, digital inequality and sexual orientation — to name some.
In the weeks leading up to the passage of the act, events such as the disappearance of three civil rights volunteers during Freedom Summer in Mississippi were pivotal in drawing the nation’s attention to the state’s racist practices that denied African-Americans their right to vote. Since the passage of the ’64 legislation and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mississippi has seen increased black participation and now claims the highest number of black-elected officials.
The efforts by leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and then-civil rights activist John Lewis, and organizations such as National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as well as hundreds of supporters – black and white – who risked their lives contributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction on July 2, 1964, fulfilling slain predecessor John F. Kennedy’s legislative agenda.
“The racism was overt and at times deadly,” said Loren Ghiglione, then a Yale Law School student who witnessed the intimidation of civil rights activists and student volunteers attempting to register black voters during Freedom Summer.
“Discrimination wasn’t only against black people, but it was against anybody opposed to the segregation system.” Ghiglione, now 73 and a journalism professor at Northwestern University, spent the summer teaching literature and advising the student newspaper at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, just 35 miles southeast of Memphis. He recalls incidents where civil rights workers and volunteers were driven off the highway.
Many were regularly “threatened with violence,” particularly on highways, considered “very dangerous” due to the absence of protection. “Police weren’t really your friends – they were part of the problem,” Ghiglione says. “There was that general feeling that segregation was going to be maintained.”
Before the start of Freedom Summer on June 14, 1964, the Mississippi branches of four major civil rights organizations spearheaded the highly publicized 10-week voter-registration drive. The NAACP, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress or Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) recruited more than 700 mostly white students from mainly the North to help in registering black voters, teaching at Freedom Schools and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Party.
On June 21, about 10 days before the signing of the landmark legislation, three civil rights volunteers – two Jewish and one African-American — were ambushed and shot dead by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The bodies of James Chaney, 21, Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, voter-registration volunteers, were found 44 days later on Aug. 4 in an earthen dam near the murder site.
Just a year earlier, Medgar Evers, an NAACP worker, was shot dead by a Klansman outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home just hours after President Kennedy’s national speech in support of civil rights.
Earlier this year during a tribute to the historic law, Georgia Rep. Lewis, who was present at the signing ceremony 50 years ago with Rev. King and other civil rights leaders, said, “Without the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson and the involvement of hundreds and thousands and millions of people in the civil rights movement, there would be not President Jimmy Carter, no President Bill Clinton, no President Barack Obama.”
Recalling his experience during Freedom Summer, Ghiglione’s former student David Beckley, a 1967 graduate and current president of Rust College, says Freedom Summer gave the South a spotlight that was long overdue.
“The entire country had a chance to vividly see what happened,” Beckley said, adding that “police discriminatory practices were a way of life.” Ghiglione says race remains a “real issue” in American society.
“Racism compared with other forms of discrimination appears to be much harder to overcome in this society,” he says, adding that the issue is difficult to overcome because much of it is tied to residential segregation, school segregation, income inequality and economics.
Medill News Service