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The Civil Rights Act: 50 Years On

The Civil Rights Act: 50 Years On

I believe the vast majority of Americans are disappointed in the degree of racial division, mistrust, and misunderstanding that still plagues American society. And I further believe that disappointment and discontent stretches through all ethnic groups and generations in American society.

In the wake of the tremendous, revolutionary victories won over de jure institutionalized, legal racial segregation in the 1960s, most Americans expected and hoped for far more rapid progress toward Dr. King's dream of a nation where people were "judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Alas, while legalized racial segregation was dismantled rapidly in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, racial prejudice has lingered like a stubbornly antibiotic-resistant virus that just refuses to die. Why? The Bible tells us that man is fallen and sinful (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:23). Thus racism is pandemic because people are always tempted to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think (Rom. 12:3) and thus thinking less of people who are different from themselves.

Ultimately, racism will be tamed not just by the law, but by the kind of inward spiritual change wrought by the transformative power of the Gospel of Christ. As I have said before, when it comes to racism, as well as other sins, the salt of the law can change actions, behaviors, and habits, but only the light of the Gospel can change attitudes, beliefs and hearts.

However, that does not mean that the salt of the law is not a necessary ingredient in the quest for greater racial equality and justice. While it is true that you cannot legislate morality in the sense of mandating beliefs, you can, and must, legislate against behavior when that behavior involves someone denying another person their basic rights to equality under the law.

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, it is helpful to reflect on how far we have come from the dark days of segregation, not to rest on our laurels, but in order to draw inspiration for finishing the journey.

Those of us who lived through the transformative years of the Civil Rights revolution often tend to forget that the majority of Americans now alive had not yet been born when segregation was put out of its misery by Civil Rights legislation.

It was a different world a half century ago and racial segregation was far more pervasive in many parts of America than young people of today can ever imagine.

I was born in 1946 in Houston, Texas, already well on its way to becoming the country's fourth largest city. I was almost 18 when the Civil Rights law passed in 1964. The Houston in which I grew up (now the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the U.S.) was rigidly segregated.

I grew up in a city that was at least one fourth black and I never met a black person my own age until I was a freshman at Princeton. I knew a lot of black people, but they were all adults, the cooks, the maids, and the janitorial staff at my segregated church and public schools in my segregated neighborhood. Former heavyweight champion George Foreman grew up no more than five miles from my boyhood home, and for all intents and purposes, we might as well have been raised in different countries, if not different continents.

I can remember segregated buses, water fountains, and waiting rooms. I can remember as a boy in the mid-fifties, asking my mother why black people had to sit in the back of the bus and she replied, "It's not right, but that is just the way it is."

The laws changed, that blatant racism in everyday American life vanished, and all people of good will said "good riddance."

Now, on the 50th anniversary of this great triumph which liberated all of us from the prison of an institutionalized racist past, let us pause a moment and celebrate just how far we have come as we simultaneously resolve to keep moving toward Dr. King's goal.


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