40 years ago today, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. I was two years old at the time and Jill was not yet 4 months old. We grew up in the shadow of this event which, perhaps more than any other legislative action in American history, has had the greatest positive effect on the nation as a whole.
One of the great tragedies of Lyndon Johnsonís life was that the Vietnam War completely overshadows the enormous accomplishment he can claim for originating and championing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are many heroes in this battle for civil rights, but in this particular offensive, Johnson was THE great leader.
History gives Lyndon Johnson most of the blame for the Vietnam war which was a conflict he did not start and despite his best efforts, was increasingly unable to end either militarily or politically. I donít care to debate this. All wars are bad even when there is no other choice but to fight them. War is an inevitable human trait which, in the long run, accomplishes little other than to make us all a little more miserable. So, I will skip this horrible and gray area of history and focus on the positive.
By the time Johnson took the oath of office, he had decades of hardscrabble political skirmishes behind him. As a battle hardened politician, he had mastered all the tactics and possessed every weapon necessary to carry forth ANY policy he wanted. But of all the things he could have done, he chose to make America a little fairer, a little freer, a little more with Liberty and Justice for All.
He could have used the sympathy of the nation, still mourning President Kennedyís death, to do just about anything. After all, President Kennedy had been assassinated a mere five days prior to Johnson announcing his intention to pursue the Civil Rights Act. Because of the assissination, dramatic action was expected--required evenóof Kennedy' successor.
Johnson could have declared martial and clamped down on civil liberties in an unprecedented way. He wouldnít have been the first president to do this in reaction to tragedy. Johnson could have declared a war on our nearest worst enemy--Cuba. Links between the assassination and Cuba could have been made credible and the angry mobís bloodlust might have been tremendously satisfied with this.
Johnson could have put forward policy or doctrine that filled the pockets of his cronies at the expense of the poor and middle class. Far too many politicians make this their primary and sometimes only real action.
Johnson could have used the his great opportunity to oppress, to impoverish, to move us farther away from the goals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. He could have done so many easier and less controversial things but instead he chose to harness all his talent, skill, and political capital to make the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a reality.
40 years later, it seems an amazing and not entirely likely or inevitable choice. It certainly wasnít the thing that most endeared him to the American Public. In 1964 Civil Rights was the wedgiest of wedge issues and America was firmly divided over the issue.
But Mr. Johnson took a stand toward progress. He made a cihoice that history should, but doesnít, give him enough credit for. The fog of war clouds our ability to see what an enormous positive change Johnsonís Civil Rights Act created for all Americans. I believe to my core that history will bear this out.
I believe all Americans are ennobled by the Civil Rights Act. I believe that the elimination of an institutionalized caste system makes us all better people. There are those who would not agree. There are those who still seethe at the idea that they canít be defined by law as the ruling class, the top of the hierarchy, or the top dog in the kennel. Those people canít be helped and can go to hell. They deserve no better.
In opposition to that all too common idea, I canít imagine a world where employers are able to explicitly deny jobs to entire classes of people based on gender, ethnicity, or any other bias. I canít imagine a world where a personís skin tone defines them as lower class citizens regardless of what other qualities they might possess. I canít imagine living in Jim Crowís world or Uncle Tomís cabin.
There are those who say we still live there. They are wrong. Prejudice still exists, no doubt about that. But institutionalized prejudice does notónot legally anyway. Legislation can not dictate what is in our hearts and minds but it can require us to act differently or suffer the consequence of law.
Today, my wife practices a profession that was virtually closed to women 40 years ago. The company I work for not only embraces but vigorously promotes a diverse workforce which profits the company far more than the expense of the diversity initiatives it pays for.
Today my children live in an integrated world I couldnít have imagined existed when I was growing up. The only non-white faces I saw growing up were those that were bussed across town. The only non-white family that lived within a mile of my house sent the entire neighborhood into a panic that all the real estate values would go into the toilet and that Watts style riots would likely follow.
But today, my children remain--thus far--color blind in a way I probably never was as a child. Today, my children are growing up with playmates of all races, creeds, and colors and, thus far, donít recognize this as anything more unusual than blue eyes to their brown. When they're describing a classmate, they say, the boy with brown hair and blue eyes, or the girl with brown skin and long hair. In thier wonderful guilelessness, they care only if that person is nice or fun or smart or any other quality than that we adults define as "race."
This represents an amazing change to have occurred in tiny span of time.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the beginning of a new day in America. In the prevailing 40 years, new troubles have appeared and old troubles faded away. We still do not have equality even though we have the right to be equal. We remain as mindful of what separates us than we are committed to what brings us together. We have built new walls to separate us from each other as soon as we have torn the old ones down.
We have a ways to go and we may not live to see the promised land. But God has allowed us to go up to the mountain and look over.
All we have to do is walk on over to the other side.