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The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Unfinished Business

By Andrea L. Zopp

It has been 50 years since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Called for by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and pushed through Congress in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, it is arguably the most important legislation to come out of the Civil Rights Movement. This milestone was the culmination of bipartisan Congressional leadership, brave men, women and children whose peaceful protests often received brutal responses, and determined activism from grassroots and national leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Height, and Whitney M. Young.

This victory would not have been won without dedicated citizens of all backgrounds across the country, including right here in Chicago. In fact, June 21st marked the 50thanniversary of the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights. This event drew thousands to Soldier Field to hear King, Young, Bishop Arthur Brazier, Al Raby, Mahalia Jackson and others motivate the masses to demand immediate passage of the Act. The rally, co-convened by the Chicago Urban League and the Church Federation of Greater Chicago, was one of Chicago’s major contributions to the movement.

This Civil Rights Act, a monumental piece of legislation, overturned centuries of legalized discrimination.  The Act granted African Americans equal access to public places and accommodations and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the workplace. It outlawed segregated schools and discriminatory application of voter registration requirements used in the South to keep Blacks from voting. It also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and laid the groundwork for the passage a year later of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

By declaring racial discrimination illegal, the Civil Rights Act opened the doors of opportunity for many.   African Americans were provided access to better schools, jobs and housing and much progress has been achieved since the Civil Rights Act’s passing. However, in the half century since it became the law of the land, it’s clear that the Act hasn’t lived up to its full promise.

Today, African Americans enjoy more access to places to live, work and spend their money but we still lag significantly behind in educational attainment, employment opportunities, business success and fairness in the criminal justice system. And as we head into the first major federal elections since 2010, there are now 15 states with new voting restrictions in place, making it harder to cast a ballot. Despite the protections of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination still exists in our country and the impact of discrimination is still creating barriers to meaningful opportunity for many.

The Civil Rights Act was groundbreaking legislation that represented a strong example of what can be accomplished when we are willing to cross the barriers that divide us and work together to achieve a common good.  As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Act, we still have many critical issues negatively impacting our community, gun violence, high incarceration rates and high unemployment among them.  Let us use the same spirit that powered the Civil Rights Act to reenergize our commitment to continue to push for positive change and equal access to opportunity for all our community.  We can and must not only honor, but learn from our historic accomplishments.

With that in mind, on July 8, the Chicago Urban League willhost a commemorative event presented by Allstate at the Chicago History Museumexamining the history and legacy of the Civil Rights Act, and the unfinishedwork yet to be done.  We will discuss realand attainable actions that we, as a collective community, can take to pick upwhere the Civil Rights Act left off.

Our panelists will include Dr. Carol Adams, president and CEO, DuSable Museum of African American History; Mitzi Miller, editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine; Clay Risen, a New York Times editor and author of “The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act”; Bonnie Boswell, executive producer, “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights”; and Adam Green, associate professor in history and the College Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago.

The event takes place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and I hope you will consider joining us for this important conversation Civil Rights Act of 1964 and issue a community call to action. You can register to attend at www.TheChicagoUrbanLeague.org.

We have come a long way since 1964, but we still have miles to go. Let’s use this significant anniversary to set the agenda for the next 50 years of civil rights activism.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.