Civil Rights legislation began during the Reconstruction Period, which was a tumultuous time for our country. If you looked at a list of “Most Corrupt U.S. Presidents” you would find a lot of those guys serving between 1870 and 1900. Andrew Johnson was actually impeached and Sam Grant’s administration was riddled with scandals. The issue of race became a political football that everybody fumbled.
Out of the chaos came a Supreme Court decision — Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) — which made segregation the law of the land on the principle that blacks could enjoy “separate but equal” public facilities. In 1954, when it became apparent that white folks weren’t holding up their end of the deal, the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down and called for a more general integration of the races. And whereas the Reconstruction was a rough time for our country it will be noted that the 1960’s — when the effects of the Brown decision were being implemented — had their own set of challenges.
The 1960’s saw the birth of the modern civil rights movement but, just like the Reconstruction Era, there was a lot of other stuff going on. The decade began with a president being assassinated and ended with a man on the moon. In between there was LBJ — trying to introduce a new set of government programs to address civil rights in Jack Kennedy’s shadow — the Vietnam War, Woodstock and Charlie Manson. America had its hands full.
But two figures emerged from this era and between them the foundations of our present-day approach to race and civil rights were laid. Naturally I’m talking about Martin Luther King and George Wallace. And these two men were as different as they were alike.
The differences are plain to see — King being the proponent of equal rights not only for blacks but for all people and Wallace being the die-hard segregationist willing to fight the Civil War all over again.
For similarities both men enjoyed the popular support of their followers — Wallace even went as far as to get his wife elected as the governor of Alabama when his term was up and then ran for the Presidency. They both held strong and uncompromising positions for the future of their people. And they both got shot. Wallace survived but King’s martyrdom in a rapidly changing society won the cause.
And so we saw a series of government sponsored and/or mandated programs designed to embitter race relations introduced. We have to start with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I can’t really do justice to its full scope here but suffice to say that it ended requirements that were designed to keep blacks out of the voting booth, outlawed segregation in all public facilities, and expanded the Federal Civil Rights Commission that had been established in 1958.
In my opinion the history of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s was twofold. Part one was getting the legislation established and part two was getting it interpreted correctly. Even though the 1964 act was the law of the land, LBJ still had to send the National Guard into Alabama to protect Civil Rights activists in 1965. Resistance to the new legislation also took the form of murder, riots and a few church bombings.
1968 saw the passage of another Civil Rights Act one week after Martin Luther King was assassinated. The new law could be correctly viewed as an amendment to the 1964 act which expanded those rights to American Indians and introduced the Fair Housing language.
In all fairness, the government rarely gets it right the first time — hence the amended act. And the government always makes mistakes — Title X of the 1968 law has been subjected to a wide array of interpretation. In a nutshell that’s been the history of Civil Rights legislation for the past 50 years — amending the law as new groups come to the table (the LGBTQ movement being the most prominent recent example) and drawing the line between societal goals and individual rights. The issue of states’ rights versus federal prerogative was settled in the 1860’s. The battle between individual rights — including the right to be prejudiced, I suppose — was just beginning.
This is the second part of what I started as a two-part project but it looks like we’ll be going into Round Three. Last week we started with me butchering up basic psychology theory in an attempt to explain where racism comes from. It was an opinion piece. Today we took a more objective look at history. For the grand finale I’d like to take a look at where we are now with regards to race, where our leaders stand on or hide from the issue, and see if there isn’t some common ground to proceed on. Wish me luck on that.