1964 freedom summer

Student civil rights activists join hands and sing as they prepare to leave Ohio to register black voters in Mississippi

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark piece of legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in schools and places of public accommodation in addition to establishing Title VII, the basis for equal opportunity in employment. The journey to the Act being passed was beyond a difficult one, and claimed the lives of countless victims, including President John F. Kennedy, who originally introduced the bill a year earlier. As we celebrate 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, here are 5 lessons to remember:

 

1) Freedom Ain't Free. The Civil Rights Era of the 50's and 60's leading up to the Act being signed was one of selfless sacrifice. Blacks and those courageous enough to stand with them risked, and sometimes lost, life and limb in advancing the causes of equality and access for all races. For some reason, the concept of equal rights and protections for all is and remains a threatening ideal for those who enjoy unbridled levels of freedoms without second thought. It was not a comfortable journey and while the threat in 2014 may not be a lethal one, what is ultimately at stake is just as vital as it was then. It hasn't ever been easy to speak truth to power but it is nonetheless necessary. If history has taught us anything, we should know that Fredrick Douglass' well known speech about struggle as an essential ingredient to progress still rings true. It won't be a simple or straightforward road but it is a road that folks walked for us and that we must now continue to walk not only for ourselves but also for those who would come behind us.

2) We're Going to Need a Bigger Table. One of the most obvious, yet rarely discussed, aspects of that iconic picture of the signing of the Act with President Johnson, Dr. King and others is not who is present, but who is not present. There is only one conspicuous person of color, no women, no clear representations of members of other faiths, and while it's hard to tell from a photograph, I'm gonna bet a fair amount of your money that there was not someone holding down the LGBTQ community there in 1964. As we have continued to expand our definition of civil rights, there is now an even greater opportunity for the Black community to partner with other stakeholders who have a similar interest in advancing the ideals of equality. This gives us strength. The challenge, however, is ensuring that we maintain some semblance of balance in that while championing the causes of other groups--often similar, but not identical--we do not dilute our own voices to the point of weakening our positions. 

3) Until We Really Understand Racism, We're Just Spinning Our Wheels.  There is no such thing as a color blind civil rights movement in America. Point blank, period. For as much as our collective ideal may be a harmonious global community, in order to make any progress toward that goal, we must accept that racism still exists and be prepared to discuss and deal with it for what it is. And, by racism, it's far more than a noose on your office door at work or a burning cross on your front lawn. I am referring to the formal definition of racism as the systematic oppression of a people along cultural and socio-economic lines. This is not an easy conversation to have. Frantz Fanon identified the concept of cognitive dissonance as one of the greatest obstacles to Whites accepting the premise of racism as a critical barrier to civil rights, and this is still true in 2014 (ironically, it's often purported "liberal" types who seem to have the most trouble). But race, and moreover, racism and its continued existence must remain a cornerstone of the discussion. It's where things began in 1964 and 5 decades isn't going to magically erase centuries of systemic and deliberate oppression. Understanding that is key toward making any real progress as far as civil rights goes rather than making up empty measures that are meaningless gestures just designed for us to feel good and say that we did something. 

4) Our Work is Hardly Finished. We may dress it up in fancy words, or try to bait-and-switch class for race but, for the most part, the overarching theme of civil rights remains the same: access. For as much progress as has been made—and it is undeniable that we have benefited from the Act—one cannot help but to wonder whether it will ever fulfill the full spirit of its promise. We are still engaged in a conversation about ensuring access to the rights, protections, and benefits of full person hood for all in America in 2014. This includes everything from new school nuanced issues like net neutrality and access to technology in urban areas to environmental discrimination with respect to illegal dumping, etc. to age-old problems that have persisted despite what we are told are society's "best efforts" at equality (think: hiring, promotions, quality education despite income levels and racial demographics). This is a conversation that must occur not only within Black America, but should involve all stakeholders sitting at the table. This includes government, policy makers, community leaders, and the private sector (no, sirs, your "diversity task force" is not enough). As long as we are a society where folks are harassed or discriminated against for being who they are, worshiping who they worship, or deciding to love who they may choose to love, we cannot simply leave the Act where it is but have to continue to push for greater protections. 

5) The Journey Will Need More Than 140 Characters.  One of the best, and most obvious questions to ask is "Ok. So what now?"  The results from the legislation enacted in 1964 have been mixed, but are still mostly positive. At the half-century mark since the Act was passed, a serious assessment needs to be done to determine what has worked and what has not been as effective. There also needs to be an assessment to help determine whether the way(s) in which the Act has failed may have contributed to some of the present ills of Black America and whether addressing those weak spots will really speak to our current situations or are we at a juncture that requires us to dig deeper.  As we reflect on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, what should be most striking is the collective sense of purpose and determination to address systematic problems on behalf of the community. In today's me-first society driven by the culture of individual celebrity, one can only wonder how we get back to understanding that we must all invest in engineering solutions that work for our entire community, rather than simply just for a portion. This is not a quick conversation and it will require more than lazy, unimaginative approaches that worked a midst a different American landscape of 50 years ago. While our brothers and sisters in other countries have provided us with examples of how to leverage technology to our benefit in the struggle, coming together and figuring this out will take more than a frenzied hashtag movement with a two-week lifecycle and some clever memes. That is not to dismiss the value of social media as a organizing tool, but rather, a call for us to use to do just that: organize.

We press forward, knowing that there is much to be done, but equally aware of America's history and the fact that despite the appearance of insurmountable odds, our mission can and will be accomplished.

Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former Brooklyn, NY prosecutor and federal trial attorney specializing in civil rights. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.