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The legacy — and efficacy — of the Civil Rights Act on its 60th anniversary

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Sixty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson strode into the East Room of the White House, and, seated at a table surrounded by lawmakers and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.

SUMMERS: The legislation banned discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or nation of origin. But in the last 60 years, how well has the act lived up to that promise that Johnson laid out in his speech at the White House? Here to talk about that is Lerone Martin. He directs the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Lerone Martin, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LERONE MARTIN: Thank you. It's a blessing and a privilege to be with you.

SUMMERS: It has been 60 years since the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, and I'm hoping you can just briefly start by explaining how significant this law was. What did it accomplish on Day 1?

MARTIN: Well, the signing of the Civil Rights bill in '64 redefined what citizenship met in this country. For so long, people of color had been stigmatized in America and denied citizenship, the access to public accommodations, access to schools, movie theaters, on a equal plane. And the Civil Rights bill really legally transformed that, and it's a landmark legislation in American life.

SUMMERS: And I'll just point out here that this law was a long time in the making. It came after a yearslong movement for civil rights in the United States. Can you just take the step back? Help us understand how the law came to be and the movement of activism and protests that was surrounding it in the 1950s and early 1960s.

MARTIN: Yes. President Kennedy had originally put forth the legislation prior to his assassination. And on the evening when President Kennedy announced that he was going to put forth civil rights - the Civil Rights bill, Medgar Evers, a civil rights worker, was murdered in Mississippi. And so the bill had already had been surrounded by this legacy of violence in America in which African American life was being snuffed out because of racism.

And so the bill moves forward, and there's back-and-forth in Congress about the bill and threats of filibusters. And after Kennedy is assassinated, President Johnson decided that he was going to move forward with the bill in a way to honor President Kennedy. And the March on Washington, in many ways, was a public display purposely geared towards trying to galvanize public support for the Civil Rights bill. And finally, when the bill went to Congress, it was passed in the House. But it was filibustered for more than 70 days in the Senate until finally the bill was passed and President Johnson signed it.

But I think it's a lesson for us to not be fooled into thinking that it was inevitable for the bill to be passed - that it took a great deal of coalition-building, a great deal of public persuasion, moral persuasion and a great deal of jockeying in Congress in order to get this bill passed, and it's a bill that almost did not make it. And I think that's important for us to remember 60 years later - that the passage of this bill was not inevitable.

SUMMERS: You mentioned, of course, the historic March on Washington, and I'm wondering if you can drill down a little bit more on what role that march played. I mean, we have all seen those iconic photos of how many people it drew to the National Mall in Washington who were mobilized by the cause of civil rights. What role do you think it played in creating a political environment where this bill that had been stymied could actually become law?

MARTIN: It created a great deal of public awareness - and not just in this country, but globally - to show that there was a great deal of support for this bill and also to show that it was a bill that was backed by a broad coalition of the American public. It wasn't just people of color, African Americans, but it was also white brothers and sisters as well. It was Protestant Catholic, Jew, Muslim, and it was a way to show America, but also the globe, about the support that the bill had and really began to shift public opinion around passage of the bill.

SUMMERS: I wonder if you can help us put this in some political context. What impact did the passage of the Civil Rights Act - of President Johnson signing it into law - have on the political dynamics in this country?

MARTIN: Well, you know, Johnson had often said privately, and some of his aides, Bill Moyers as well, had said that the passage of the Civil Rights bill and the passage of the Voting Rights Act the following year was really the Democrats signing away the South. And in many ways, they were correct about that. We see that immediately following the passage of the Civil Rights bill in 1964 - that George Wallace received a great deal of support in the Democratic primary later that year. And also, we see that Barry Goldwater was elected the nominee for the Republican Party.

Both of those political figures opposed the Civil Rights bill, and both of those figures maintained that it was against the law for the government to tell businesses or public accommodations who they had to serve. And so from that very moment, as The New York Times pointed out in September of '64, there began what The New York Times called a white backlash. And it began to give rise to politicians who really, really capitalized on this sense of hate, so much so that Kevin Phillips, who was a well-known political appointee and political adviser for Richard Nixon, argued that the key to politics moving forward, he said, was figuring out who hated who. And I think that we see that in the rise of what was known as the white backlash in this country and also the Republicans beginning to be the primary party at the national level throughout the South.

SUMMERS: When you think about the fact that we are now 60 years removed from the signing of this law, how do you think about its legacy?

MARTIN: Well, the legacy, I think, is that it should remind all of us about the importance of building a coalition of the willing - a coalition of folks that - across race lines and class lines who believe that America should be the land of the free, where all human beings, regardless of their race, sex, creed, gender or sexuality or religion or origin, should be treated equally. And I think that, again, we have to remember that this was not inevitable - that this did not have to happen.

It took people coming together and demonstrating nonviolently in the streets and pressing and moving their elected officials to vote according to the will of the people. And I think that's an important legacy for us to remember because it's very, very possible for this legislation to be clipped and rolled back and anesthetized and made anemic to the point where it no longer has any teeth. And so we have to always be vigilant and remind ourselves of what it takes for such landmark legislation to be passed.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Lerone Martin. He directs the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Lerone, thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.
Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Linnea E. Anderson
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