On the day that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, about 1,000 people gathered in Kansas City’s Music Hall for the opening of the national convention of the Congress of Racial Equality, and 13-year-old Gene Young, of Jackson, Miss., couldn’t get his hair cut at the Muehlebach Hotel.
The civil rights bill, a historic milestone that was long in the making, had passed both houses of Congress — after 60 days of filibuster and debate in the Senate — in what today looks like a remarkable and enviable display of bipartisanship and effective presidential leadership.
Though some of its intended results — to ban discrimination in employment and in places serving the public, such as hotels, restaurants, gas stations and movie theaters — came swiftly to fruition, supporters remained skeptical that integration and equality would be achieved without further struggle.
“We must see to it that the law is more than a scrap of paper,” James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, told the Music Hall audience. “You have put it on the books as much as any senator who sat there, and if it is to be enforced you will have to enforce it.”
Farmer and others urged attendees to test the law at every opportunity, at every place of public accommodation.
Fifty years later, Farmer’s skepticism remains apt.
The American story of race and inequality continues to evolve, and not always in positive directions.
The years after passage of the civil rights act were rocked by assassinations, riots and long-running social discords, whose echoes can still be heard today.
Although opportunities in education, jobs and housing are vastly improved for African-Americans and other minorities, too many people remain mired in poverty, and without adequate schools and housing. About 27 percent of black Americans live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, down from more than 41 percent in the mid-1960s but still disturbingly high.
In addition, as the political divide expands and hardens, the real work of government has become more difficult and safety nets have become frayed.
A year ago, the Supreme Court even rolled back a piece of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, another landmark bill championed by Johnson and the civil rights movement. In state after state, new assaults on voting rights feel like a return to the primitive, segregated, repressive past.
When the Kansas Legislature earlier this year entertained a bill to allow businesses to deny service to gays and lesbians, it was shaking the trunk of a controversial tree. Title II of the Civil Rights Act applied to private businesses, forcing lunch counters and department stores to end the Jim Crow era in the South and everywhere else. For conservatives of that era, it was a hard thing to swallow at the time, but swallow they did.
Today, though the Kansas anti-gay bill was defeated, the forces that brought it forth are relentless. With a regressive Supreme Court majority, a tide of libertarianism and a business-first culture fueling the political power structure, the fragility of Americans’ civil and social rights should be no surprise.
We are often reminded that the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is never done. Nor should we take for granted the civil rights initiatives of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the 1960s.
The true measure of our society, which purports to lead the world in democratic values, is whether we are creating better lives for the children of today and for their children of tomorrow. As for the Gene Youngs of the world, yes, life has improved since July 1964. As it turned out for the Mississippi teenager, the day after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, he got his haircut at the Muehlebach. He wasn’t too happy with it, he told The Star, but Gene Young did go on to enjoy a life in academia and as a prominent civil rights activist, known in the South until his death in 2011.
Many Kansas Citians have their own stories of activism and struggle from the last five decades or more. All Kansas Citians should share in that history, in the progress that has been made and in the careful work that needs to be done yet today.