March 29, 2017

JFK’s Legacy of Equal Opportunity Legislation

On an historic day in June 1963, President John F. Kennedy laid the groundwork for the future passage of legislation that would make meaningful changes for civil rights. President Kennedy gave a speech and noted that he was seeking “the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves.” Despite his tragic assassination later that year in Dallas, Texas, his leadership set the wheels in motion for literally one of the most important pieces of legislation that the United States Congress has ever passed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 put into place key laws that would protect the civil rights of African Americans as never before.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented the culmination of many decades of struggle to achieve authentic civil rights for African Americans in the United States. John F. Kennedy had a vision for putting real teeth into the law, giving it the power to truly change the way U.S. citizens worked, played and lived together.  This legislation was a continuation of the work initiated with The Civil Rights Act of 1875 but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was much more enforceable. The legislation also used language that made it contemporary in an era of the expanding civil rights movement.

The bill was broad and covered many areas of civil life in the United States. It offered a wide range of restrictions against discrimination.  The five “titles” of the bill included many long needed social changes.

Title I — Banned discriminatory voter registration practices that had been used to deny black citizens the right to vote.

Title II – Made it illegal to discriminate in public venues such as restaurants, theaters or hotels based on race.

Title III — Banned discrimination from public facilities such as government services or schools.

Title IV – Insured the enforcement of desegregation in the public school system.

Title V — Made it illegal to discriminate in the workplace, including race-based hiring practices.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 impacted virtually every aspect of public life in America –– from education to the work place, reaching even to public gatherings like entertainment and restaurants. Covering nearly every way that American citizens gathered together as a people, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 sought to ban discrimination against African Americans.

Several other important aspects promoting civil rights were also an important part of the bill. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not address civil rights only for African Americans. In fact, it does not address that population specifically at all.  Instead, this legislation protected the civil rights of all minority groups in America. In doing so, Congress forged powerful allies for the African American cause from outside that community, and put legislation in place that would impact the emerging movement for the equal rights of women.  Doing so, the House and Senate built a strong alliance between these movements which served to add clout not only to the bill’s passage through Congress but also to those who were charged with enforcement of this important legislation.

Today, we admire the courage of the leadership of this country for taking a stand on behalf of equal rights.  Following the vision of President Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson did not let the Kennedy assassination thwart the passage of this bill becoming law. President Johnson put the muscle of the Oval Office behind the bill and gave it the power to push past objections and become the law of the land.

Some historians have suggested that his strong political stand created such animosity in the South that it directly impacted President Johnson’s re-election. But President Johnson believed that passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was necessary for the good of the country and for society. He believed that equal rights for African Americans and all Americans was more important than his own political ambitions, and he defied the danger to his political career make sure became the law.

As we step forward into a new decade, it’s important to remember the legacy of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. The United States of America needs that kind of leadership today and in every generation to come in this great country and throughout the entire world.

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