Sept. 15, 2014 10:30 AM

There has been much progress in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, but there is still work to be done.

There has been much progress in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, but there is still work to be done.

By Valerie Garrett

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. It is a milestone in the development of our country and our state.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2. The Civil Rights Movement challenged the United States to make good on the promise - made in the Declaration of Independence - that every citizen had certain, inalienable rights, which had until then been denied to African-Americans. The Civil Rights Act was the country rising to meet that challenge.

As President Johnson so eloquently stated, the civil rights problem is no "Southern problemno Northern problem[it is] only an American problem." All Americans must tackle this problem with courage. For the courage of one can change a nation; the courage of one can change a culture; the courage of one can change how we live and view the world. This courage was found in Plessey, who challenged the Louisiana segregation statute of 1890; in Brown, who challenged the unequal and segregated public school systems; in Ruby Bridges, who challenged the segregated school system in New Orleans; and many more throughout Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights era and even today.  

In September I met a 93-year-old woman who grew up in the Jim Crow era and saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act. She has a profound understanding of the importance of the act because it changed for her access to all public places and equal education for her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Today, she regularly exercises her right to vote and encourages others to do the same.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964's passage almost a century after the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments reminds us that change does not come easily - it takes committed effort over time to bring it about.

The Civil Rights Act reshaped American life in fundamental ways. It prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It also barred racial segregation and discrimination in schools, workplaces and public accommodations. The act paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated discriminatory voting prohibitions and requirements.

The Civil Rights Act became law thanks to the grassroots efforts of Americans of all races who openly condemned the discriminatory Jim Crow practices of the South.

Resistance to the Civil Rights Movement was intense in Southern states. Freedom Riders were attacked multiple times across the South in 1961. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in 1961 in Albany, Ga. In 1962, two black churches used by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for voter registration meetings were burned in Sasser, Ga.

The following year proved pivotal in securing the act's passage. In the first half of 1963, King was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Ala., for leading marches against discrimination. While in jail, King authored his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, in response to public calls from some religious leaders for King and other Civil Rights advocates to slow down and be more patient.

It was the events of Selma, Ala., where a peaceful nonviolent marched resulted in the deaths and injuries of many civil rights activists of all races that became known as Bloody Sunday. These events accelerated the passage of President Johnson's Voting Rights Act.

Many others courageously stood up for freedom and equality in the ensuing years and even today.

Although it has been 50 years since the enactment on the Civil Rights Act, recent events show how important it is to continue to pursue civil equality for all Americans.

The act has been used to allow equality to all - minorities, women and now gays. As an African-American attorney I have seen the change, the growth and the acceptance of people who look beyond race and see qualification, education and judge people on the content of their character.

The fight for equality and civil rights in America is not finished until every American has equal rights in all areas of life. Each generation of Americans must rise to the challenge of extending and protecting our basic freedoms to all of us. It is the fundamental test of our national character.

Valerie Gotch Garrett has been practicing law for more than 20 years in the areas of criminal defense, family law, successions and auto accidents and spends a large amount of time in court, in litigation and serving as a pro bono attorney for the Lafayette Volunteer Lawyers program.

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