The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – whose anniversary we are commemorating today – is one of the Civil Rights Movement’s signature achievements. Its promise cannot be overstated: a society free of the toxic and pernicious discrimination that taints all our stated ideals. But just as the South Africans learned in the years after the end of Apartheid, once the plague of racism has become embedded in a society, it keeps a tenacious hold and finds ways to continue spreading new epidemics.
The legacy that cannot be diminished is the vision of a just society where human rights are universally respected and realized, which is what the Civil Rights Movement worked so hard to imbed deeply in our national psyche and identity. It’s a vision that is fundamentally at odds with today’s school-to-prison pipeline, with the razing and privatizing of public housing, the growing level of precarious work under undignified conditions, and an ever growing list of social injustices tied to today’s inequitable economy and unaccountable decision-makers.
While the Civil Rights Movement faced the stark manifestations of racism in the hoods of the KKK and the actions of Southern law enforcement, today’s face of racism may be blander but equally deadly. We still witness horrifying abuses in the murder of young black men with the impunity offered by Stand Your Ground laws. Yet we also know that it is corporate actors manufacturing and selling weapons in a barely regulated market, supported by NRA ideology, that create the climate for killers to shoot unarmed teenagers. We can trace how there is profit in discrimination and oppression – whether in criminalizing or displacing entire communities – and how those profiting from abuse hold disproportionate political power in our increasingly strained democracy.
For all these reasons, we continue moving forward with a deep commitment to the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement – one of the most inspiring movements of our time. We need to build a strong and unstoppable economic and social rights agenda for the United States to realize universal human rights for all our people. Today we rightly commemorate the extraordinary milestone that the Civil Rights Act represents, we mourn the failure of our country to fulfill its promise, and we re-commit to fighting for equity and justice until we succeed.