The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed segregation in schools, public places and at work. On the 20th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the bill, NBC's Fred Briggs looks at how it has changed America.
The 20th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
TOM BROKAW, anchor:
Tonight’s Special Segment, the Civil Rights Act, 20 years later. It changed America, especially for blacks. Not all of their problems are solved, of course, not by a long shot. But with the Civil Rights Act, they began to emerge from the darkest corners of discrimination. Fred Briggs reports tonight, it all seems very long ago, and yet there still is so far to go.
FRED BRIGGS, reporting:
The South of the early Sixties seems almost as remote now as its Antebellum Era.
Unidentified woman: I’m sorry. Our management does not allow us to serve niggers in here.
BRIGGS: Lunch counter sit-ins, the marches, voter registration drives, blacks so long conditioned to knowing their place found it intolerable.
Black Voter’s Rights Activist: We would like to come in to register. We feel we have a right to come inside the courthouse…
BRIGGS: And in Greensboro, Albany, Georgia, Montgomery, St. Augustine they pushed to get out. In 1963, they pushed the largest, most immovable object their force could target. Birmingham. the city that became the catalyst, to sway public opinion and the Congress, largely because of an embittered mayor who was also a hard line segregationist, and a police commissioner charged with holding that hard line. Eugene “Bull” Connor whose police greeted marchers with clubs, dogs and fire hoses. Unintentionally, they torn down the way of life they were trying to defend. People like Richard Arrington, who saw those confrontations finds them a little unreal now.
RICHARD ARRINGTON, Mayor: I never thought in my lifetime that I would see the changes in Birmingham Alabama that I have seen, that I have witnessed. And I don’t believe that 20, 21 years ago that there was anybody who said that Birmingham would be like it is today.
BRIGGS: The changes began when 20 years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Its’ major provisions: open public accommodations, hotels, motels, restaurants, parks, swimming pools. Desegregation of all schools, including colleges, equal employment opportunities and ensuring the right to vote. Without that, and the Voting Rights Act that followed, would Richard Arrington hold the job he holds now?
Mr. ARRINGTON: I believe I would not be here. In fact, I know I would not be here. I’m one of the products of that act, one of the products of the Voting Rights Act.
BRIGGS: Twenty years ago, barely more than six million blacks were registered voters. Now it’s more than ten million. Most of that gained in the South. In 1964 fewer than one hundred black officials nationwide, today almost six thousand. For a black child growing up in this post Civil Rights Act society, the chances of growing up in desegregated schools became twice as good as the previous generations. Rob Herrington was a year old when the bill was signed. Last month, he graduated magna cum laude from one of the South’s best universities. Without the Civil Rights Act, would he have gone there?
ROB HERRINGTON, (Graduate of Duke University): I don’t think so, and I think particularly not at the school that I chose to go to, which was Duke University in North Carolina. After all, Duke didn’t accept its first black undergraduates or professional students until the early to mid 60s. And that was in the tenor of the time.
BRIGGS: The public accommodations part of the law was the most successful. There is virtually no restaurant, hotel, store or park that discriminates now. But if this was the law’s major triumph, economic opportunity is its weak point. The ratio of black to white unemployment is actually worse than it was in 1964. The Birmingham of “Bull” Connor is no more. Black children play in the park now, unaware what faced their parents here. It’s a very different city now, and because of that law 20 years ago, a very different country. Fred Briggs, NBC News, Birmingham.
Editor's Note: This act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. It made discrimination in public places unlawful. It required schools and other public places to be integrated. It made job discrimination unlawful. This document was the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction Era.
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