57 years ago, our country’s standard for civil rights legislation was signed into law. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, still resonates strongly in conversations around equity. Today, as we celebrate the accomplishments of those whose dedication to justice and community helped change the course of American history, we reignite our passion to continue their work.
Between 1865 and 1870, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery (except as crime punishment), extended the right to citizenship to all born in the country, and prohibited voting discrimination. Although this legislation appeared to be a victory for equality, state and local governments continued to violate the civil rights of people of color. Notably, in 1896, courts took advantage of the vague nature of these amendments in legalizing “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case. Additionally, the seemingly equitable language of this legislation allowed many to argue that justice and equality were already the legal norms of the country, and the need for change was nonexistent.
In the face of this re-entrenchment of systemic racism, activists and civil rights organizations, such as YWCA, stayed committed to the goal of a just future. Dedication to community and the mission of racial equity culminated in the Civil Rights Movement and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
57 years later, we are at a similar crossroads. A reexamination of the principles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (prohibiting racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, prohibiting employment discrimination, and securing voting rights) sound eerily similar to issues we push to redress today. A historical view shows us how legislative gaps can be filled with either injustice and discrimination or equity and empowerment. As we commemorate this landmark piece of legislation, we are reminded we must continue the movement to ensure these gaps are filled to secure true peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.