“Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.”
– Thomas Jefferson
Protection of civil liberties and civil rights is the most fundamental of all political values in American society. Yet it is hard to imagine only 56 years ago American citizens of all races, ages, sexes, colors, creeds, religions and those with disabilities were not entitled to equally harvest the benefits they were entitled to. In a country established under republican legal methodology so the majority could never disenfranchise the minority, it took average citizens, not politicians, to venture forward from the shadows of America’s cloistered societal enclaves to correct these heretical incongruities.
This week, we commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and the value of human equality and the rights he labored for. It is a time we reflect on the salience of Dr. King’s ability to unite men and women of all colors to crusade against Southern segregation that helped empower the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While most of us champion the Civil Rights Movement and the laboring of Dr. King for ending segregation, Dr. King’s efforts affected all of us. This not only outlawed racial discrimination but it also helped end discrimination based upon gender, race, color, age, nationality and religion.
The significance of Dr. King’s work and others who worked to purify the waters of our democracy is often overlooked since there is a “disconnect” between civil rights and civil liberties. Civil liberties, those listed in the Bill of Rights, are protected by the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. Civil rights is the protecting of those rights from discrimination under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This ratifies the importance of the Civil Rights Act and the efforts of others that added tools for Americans to utilize in sheltering their sacred rights from capricious discrimination.
Since civil rights and civil liberties are synonymous, much like our nation’s quest for independence and self rule, the Civil Rights Movement did not start and end in the 1960s. At the beginning of the Convention of 1787, when Thomas Paine was denied entry into Philadelphia Hall and queried why, they told him his opinions on suffrage and slavery were too radical and they would be too disruptive to deal with at this time. As a result, slavery was not abolished and women were not given the right to vote in the new Constitution.
“The slavery of fear has made men afraid to think.”
– Thomas Paine
As a result of our founder’s inability to outlaw slavery and address the need to include equal voting rights at the Convention, it took 78 years of courageous civil disobedience and conflicts of brothers against brothers to end slavery; and 133 years of resolute activism to give women the right to vote.
We witnessed many social, cultural and political reforms during the Industrial Revolution and the Progressive Era that protected children and workers trapped in a mechanized time warp. But it was servicemen and women returning from World War II with a revitalized enthusiasm for freedom and liberty that forced America’s hand to address the necessity of protecting their civil liberties and civil rights.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was on the front line with these men and women and felt their concerns. In 1957, he took action to protect their rights when the Warren court ruled in favor of Brown v. Board of Education and ended school segregation. Eisenhower proposed a powerful Civil Rights Act that protected voting and judicial rights and ended most all segregation. Although Segregationists led by Lyndon Johnson stripped many protections, it gave federal authority to enforce desegregation.
“The history of free men is never written by chance … but by their choice.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Frustrated his first proposal had been gutted by Lyndon Johnson, in 1960 Eisenhower proposed a second Civil Rights Act to reinstate the provisions Johnson had slashed from his bill. And again the segregationists hacked out key provisions before sending it to the floor, where it passed. It gave increased federal authority to enforce violations of America’s voting and civil rights. Black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.remarked, “What this president just did was end 80 years of black political slavery.”
In reaction to the race riots in the early 1960s and growing concerns by all Americans for protections of their civil rights and civil liberties, President John F. Kennedy drafted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This bill restored the controversial provisions gutted from Eisenhower’s bill and outlawed segregation in all public places. But the bill stalled in the House Rules Committee when Chairman Howard Smith, a segregationist, vowed to kill it. The bill remained dormant until the assassination of John Kennedy.
By the time Lyndon Johnson took office, the Civil Rights Act had generated strong support from the North. It soon became imminent; LBJ needed to get this bill to the floor. But segregationists Robert Byrd and William Fulbright filibustered the bill for 83 days, arguing it would destroy “social order and bring racial impurity” to the South. After a great deal of pressure from Dr. Martin Luther King and a large number of black and white activists, the bill finally passed with large majorities in both Houses.
“There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”
– Martin Luther King
Dr. King told us, “The time is always right to do what is right.” He and many other Americans made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our civil liberties and civil rights. The chapters of American history are filled with reforms led by visionary patriots who saw a wrong and made it right. They reshaped our social and cultural destiny to better align America’s socio-political order with our founders' ideas of equality, liberty and unrestricted opportunity. These were grassroots efforts led by those willing to work against an accepted system that was not working properly for all Americans and decided to correct its political and social flaws.
“He who dares not offend cannot be honest.”
– Thomas Paine
It is hard for young Americans to imagine this nation before the Civil Rights Act. Because too few are taught the true intrinsic value of the Civil Rights Movement and how it brought awareness to the imparities in so many aspects of our lives. The Civil Rights Act revolutionized American society. It barred segregation in public schools, restaurants and on public transportation. This historic law outlawed employment discrimination. It banned voter disenfranchisement. It prohibited age, gender and religious discrimination, and it brought necessary protections to the rights of every American.
A society that is not constantly in transition is a society that has a limited life span. Change is an inevitable consequence in a world where evolution brings with it new opportunities and problems. As we adapt to address our current and future needs, we discover the sins of our past. If we correct those errors in judgment, we are able to meet our future cultural and social needs for survival. Dr. King and others who worked in the Civil Rights Movement helped improve the lives of all Americans by working to bring us powerful weapons to protect our civil liberties and civil rights.
America was founded by zealous patriots who fought until we were a nation. And it will always be patriots like them who answer their call to duty when our country needs them to help keep America a great nation.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him that it is right.”
– Martin Luther King