The Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to entitle all ‘to the blessings of liberty’

06/28/2014 2:00 PM

06/26/2014 8:44 AM

At 6:45 p.m. July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sat down at a desk in the White House and looked into a television camera to announce that he was signing the Civil Rights Act into law.

He began his brief remarks by explaining how the values the country was founded upon were not being upheld in practice.

“We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.

“The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand — without rancor or hatred — how this all happened.

“But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”

He concluded with an appeal to his fellow citizens, “Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this Nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all.

“Thank you and good night.”

With that he picked up the first of 70 fountain pens he would use to sign his name to the document that changed America from one day to the next, forever.

There would be no more separate water fountains. If you were black, you could travel freely through the South, get a hotel room and buy a hamburger at Krystal.

The new law ensured that black Americans enjoyed the same rights as white Americans when it came to education, employment and access to stores, restaurants and hotels.

Fifty years later, we take it for granted that black Americans are entitled to the same liberties as white Americans. And yet statistics in key areas tell a different story about the distribution of opportunity.

The black-white wealth gap is stark and growing: Nationally, white families on average have six times as much wealth as black families.

Unemployment rates for blacks are consistently double those of whites. In May, 11.5 percent compared to 5.4 percent.

In Missouri, a report last month showed black drivers are 66 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.

The disparities cannot be simply explained by differences in ability or effort.

But real progress has been made as well. Although Troost Avenue remains a stark east-west racial boundary, Kansas City plunged from the 18th most segregated city in the country in the 2000 census to 36th in 2010.

In October 2008, an estimated 75,000 Kansas Citians thronged to Liberty Memorial to cheer the man who would become our first black president, Barack Obama.

For this special Star magazine report, we had in-depth conversations with eight Kansas Citians — black and white, young and old — about the legacy of the Civil Rights Act.

These are their stories of struggles, progress and visions for a more just society.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com.

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