Reflecting On The Civil Rights Act’s Anniversary With James BaldwinRoundup
tags: LBJ, Civil Rights Act, James Baldwin
Lindsey R. Swindall teaches history at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She has written numerous books and articles including The Politics of Paul Robeson’s Othello, Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art, and The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anticolonialism, 1937-1955. She has dramatized her Robeson biography with actor Grant Cooper and also co-facilitates community discussions about race and US history through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Public Scholars Project.
July marks the 55th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex, and helped to dismantle de jure segregation. History books often simplify the passage of this bill into a discernible moment of completion during the Civil Rights Movement. However, the ensuing decades have demonstrated that the law has neither purged the country of racism or the vestiges of racial segregation.
In a speech delivered the day he signed the Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson sensed that a single law would not eliminate the oppression and racist thinking that permeated America. He hinted at a longer struggle by noting that freedom could “be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”
Fifty-five years later, what can be done to “renew and enlarge” the meaning of the Civil Rights Act?
For insight, we turn to writer and social commentator James Baldwin. Three years of discussing Baldwin with community groups has shown me that honest conversations about race, history, and American life can help us, as Johnson hoped when he signed the Civil Rights Act, “understand — without rancor or hatred — how all this happened.”