Editor’s Note: As the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Post and Courier is exploring the impact of the historic law with an occasional series. Today’s story is the first installment.
BY ADAM PARKER
It is perhaps fitting that 1964 was a leap year, for the world lurched forward with terrific force.
And from our vantage point on this Martin Luther King Day in 2014, it is helpful to recall that tumultuous moment 50 years ago in our nation’s history — and in the world — that created gusts so forceful that the country’s advocates for justice were spun every which way. One of those gusts blew through Congress and produced the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency after John Kennedy’s assassination and immediately began pushing his predecessor’s legislative agenda, which included civil rights and anti-poverty measures.
The Beatles came to America in 1964. The Vietnam War heated up. Barry Goldwater became a prominent political figure symbolizing a new, reactionary Republican Party.
Nelson Mandela was tried and imprisoned with a life sentence, prompting early anti-apartheid protests in the United States, especially among civil rights leaders.
That June, three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney — who were in Mississippi for “Freedom Summer,” assisting a large-scale voter-registration campaign spearheaded by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen and a deputy sheriff.
In August, the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City dismissed Fannie Lou Hamer and other activists calling on the convention to replace the all-white Mississippi delegation.
In October, Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize.
That year, some African countries fighting for independence from colonial rule and its legacy made headway, fueling an African-centric strain within the U.S. civil rights movement that was closely associated with Black Power.
The Civil Rights Act, a Kennedy leftover, had been debated furiously in Congress for months, opposed with heated rhetoric by Goldwater, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd and others, reintroduced in a new form that spring and finally signed into law in July.
It outlawed voter literacy tests, ended discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and desegregated all “public accommodations” engaged in commercial activity, although it did not guarantee enforcement.
Activists at the time certainly welcomed it, but some wondered if it was a toothless victory. It would take time, and court challenges, for the law to serve any practical purpose.
But eventually it did, and historians today consider it a watershed piece of legislation that helped transform American society.
The Civil Rights Act effectively consigned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which had declared “separate but equal” constitutional, to the trash heap of history. Yet de facto segregation remained a reality for many years, in housing, employment and other areas of American life.
“For many people, the act itself was symbolic; its execution became the real challenge,” said Bobby Donaldson, professor of African-American history at the University of South Carolina. “For a lot of people it was an affirmation of some of these earlier struggles, and that was the goal.”
It helped galvanize activists who called on the federal government to enforce the law, Donaldson said. The country, especially the South, saw an uptick in picketing and demonstrations. The movement had “turned the page,” Donaldson said.
At the same time, entrenched segregationists such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace pushed back hard. Wallace was running for the Democratic presidential nomination that year in opposition to Johnson, appealing to the old guard with ardent talk about “states’ rights,” Donaldson said.
So the Civil Rights Act was both a sign of success that raised expectations and a reminder “that this battle was not easily won, and the outcome was still quite uncertain,” he said.
Because passage of the act initially did little to right nearly three centuries of wrongs, it could hardly arrest the political momentum among black activists who were already calling for something much more consequential than integration and equality. They wanted power.
The shift in the civil rights movement from an emphasis on nonviolent civil disobedience to an emphasis on Black Power came in August 1964 as a consequence of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
The call to unseat the Mississippi delegation by members of the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was gaining support on the convention floor when Johnson stepped in.
Already concerned that passage of the Civil Rights Act had caused the Democratic Party to lose the South once and for all, Johnson did not much like the idea of stirring the pot at the convention. So Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, doing Johnson’s bidding, forced a “compromise”: the MFDP would get two at-large (non-voting) seats.
The “solution” was announced to the press before the civil rights activists had an opportunity to discuss the proposal. Mainstream civil and labor rights leaders King, Roy Wilkins, Andrew Young and Walter Reuther pressured the protesters to accept the arrangement.
“We didn’t come all this way for no two seats, ’cause all of us is tired,” Hamer declared.
The Freedom Democrats felt betrayed. Rather than acknowledge the boxes of evidence pointing to fraudulent electioneering that the activists brought with them to Atlantic City, Johnson and his party opted to appease the seated Mississippi delegation in exchange for its votes.
“As far as I’m concerned, this was the turning point of the civil rights movement,” wrote John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in his memoir. “Until then, despite every setback and disappointment and obstacle we had faced over the years, the belief still prevailed that the system would work, the system would listen, the system would respond.
“Now, for the first time, we had made our way to the very center of the system. We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.”
What transpired next had been percolating for a while, but it was this rejection of the MFDP at the Democratic Convention that prompted the radicalization of the mainstream civil rights movement and the sense among its black participants that power was not something to be asked for politely. It had to be seized, or developed from within.
In a sense, it was the Civil Rights Act itself that set the stage for the second half of the 1960s.
“It was the catalyst for the next phase of the movement,” Donaldson said. “It was also a sign that the battle was only half won.”
Deona Smith, a 44-year-old black entrepreneur who runs a marketing and advertising company in Charleston, said the law has had “a lasting positive legacy.”
“At the same time, it has not lived up to all of its promises,” Smith said, citing disproportionately high incarceration and unemployment rates among blacks. “It’s a double-edged sword. While I want to praise, to celebrate my people and their progress, I can’t get too excited when the vast majority is still hurting.”
Smith said she has been called the N-word while crossing Lower King Street. She has been followed while perusing the merchandise in the shops there.
“I want to be able to tell my son (that) if you work hard, go to school, do everything right, you can do whatever you want to do,” she said. But, “As long as racism exists there are going to be barriers. It can be disheartening to know that regardless of how hard I’ve worked, how much I studied ... the American Dream might still escape me. There are people in our community who will always think I’m not good enough.”
And the social landscape of the country betrays a painful reality, she said.
“We’re still segregated.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated George Wallace’s 1964 party affiliation. He ran for president as a Democrat. The Post and Courier regrets the error.