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The Civil Rights Act of 1964

We all know well that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. If not exactly historically precise, at least it is generally so. There is no question that Lincoln wished to end the scourge of slavery in the United States and on January 1, 1863, following the Union victory at Antietam, issued his Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential order freeing the slaves in the rebel sates. One should not forget, however, that it was not just Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, who freed the slaves, however. There was, too, the blood of roughly half a million Union dead. Following the Emancipation Proclamation and another two years of civil war, the Union victory produced, beside the untold devastation, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment, ratified by the states less than 8months after the end of hostilities, in December, 1865, is elegant in its simplicity and Section 1 provides; Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. The 14th, which passed Congress in June, 1866 and was ratified by the states in July, 1868, holds, in relevant part that: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment, the last of the Reconstruction Amendments, soon followed, in 1870, and ensured that a person’s race, color, or prior history as a slave could not be used to bar that person from voting.Taken together, what the three Reconstruction Amendments were intended to provide was that all Americans were equal and all were entitled to the same rights and privileges of citizenship.Why, then, the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Why was it necessary and what gaps in the gulf of race equality did it fill? In memory of the recent passing of Coretta Scott King, a brief summary follows below.Three quarters of a century after the American Civil War, blacks in America, though “free,” were still not equal. During the Eisenhower administration, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which “kick-started” the various civil rights legislation that followed, including the most significant the Civil Rights Act of 1964and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 1957 Act was at least a start, but was considerably less ambitious than the companion Act of 1964. The 1957 Civil Rights Act aimed simply to ensure that all African-Americans could exercise their right to vote. It was the first civil rights legislation enacted in 82 years (there had been a failed attempt in 1883 in that year, the Supreme Court had voided the last civil rights measure, declaring that such action was beyond the scope of congressional power) and was at least a stepping stone leading towards true fulfillment and implementation of the Reconstruction Amendments.Running thirty five pages, the thrust of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was to make racial discrimination in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities without respect to race. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discrimination based on color, race or national origin. The Act also attempted to deal with the problem of African-Americans being denied the vote in the Deep South. The legislation stated that uniform standards must prevail for establishing the right to vote. Schooling to sixth grade constituted legal proof of literacy and the attorney general was given power to initiate legal action in any area where he or she found a pattern of resistance to the law.The Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented landmark legislation outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Although originally conceived to protect the rights of black men, the bill was amended prior to passage to also protect the civil rights of women or all colors. It is not too much to say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 transformed American society. It forever after prohibited discrimination in public facilities, in government, and in employment and, as a result, there was a tectonic shift in American society. Jim Crow laws in the South were abolished (Jim Crow, by the way, was not an actual person;, instead, the term Jim Crow is believed to have originated around 1830 when a white, minstrel show performer, Thomas “Daddy” Rice, blackened his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork and would dance a jig while singing the lyrics to the song, “Jump Jim Crow.” Rice incorporated the skit into his minstrel act, and by the 1850s the “Jim Crow” character had become a standard part of the minstrel show scene in America. On the eve of the Civil War, the Jim Crow idea was one of many stereotypical images of black inferiority in the popular culture of the day. The word Jim Crow became a racial slur common in the vocabulary of many whites; and by the end of the century acts of racial discrimination toward blacks were often referred to as Jim Crow laws and practices), and it was illegal to compel segregation of the races in schools, housing, or hiring. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 quickly followed. That Act ensured that the protections afforded by the 15th Amendment would no longer be abridged and that every American, regardless of color would, in fact and not just in theory henceforth be unrestricted in his or her right to vote. There is little debate that these law arose, at least in significant part, to the united and ceaseless efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King and, to their lasting credit, in the words of the Preamble to the United States Constitution, a “more perfect Union” was established, securing “the Blessings of Liberty” to all.Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. He can be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Mr. Robbins can be reached at 926-4461 or at robbins@colorado.net.Vail, Colorado


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