Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the most significant pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress, so many of the basic freedoms that we share as Americans were given legal force with President Johnson’s signature.
The unequal application of voter registration requirements was barred, and public accommodations were opened to all regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin. “Whites only” water fountains and restaurants were outlawed, and “blacks need not apply” job announcements became a violation of federal law.
After signing the bill into law, President Johnson delivered remarks to nation. His full remarks can be found here, but I’d like to provide an excerpt:
I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American.
One hundred and eighty-eight years ago this week a small band of valiant men began a long struggle for freedom. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor not only to found a nation, but to forge an ideal of freedom – not only for political independence, but for personal liberty – not only to eliminate foreign rule, but to establish the rule of justice in the affairs of men.
That struggle was a turning point in our history. Today in far corners of distant continents, the ideals of those American patriots still shape the struggles of men who hunger for freedom.
Click above to watch LBJ’s full remarks
This is a proud triumph. Yet those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning. From the minutemen at Concord to the soldiers in Vietnam, each generation has been equal to that trust.
Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.
We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.
We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.
We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings – not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.
The reasons are deeply embedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand – without rancor or hatred – how this all happened.
But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.
Make no mistake: the fight for civil rights continues to this day, whether it’s your ability to have your voice heard at the ballot box, maintain equal access to quality education, or preserve health services for women and the poor. Race and poverty are sadly still intertwined. Minorities still earn less, die earlier, and are imprisoned at disproportionately higher rates.
Public Law 88-352: the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The future of our state truly depends on erasing these differences and ensuring that all people have the tools and ability to succeed.
During President Johnson’s final public appearance, he acknowledged that the work is not done:
Our objective must be to assure that all Americans play by the same rules, and all Americans play against the same odds. Who among us would claim that that is true today?
We have proved that great progress is possible. We know how much still remains to be done. And if our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then my fellow Americans, I am confident, we shall overcome.
We must honor and fulfill the sacrifice of the men and women of our past, those who paved the way for generations to live the promise of this state and nation. Steps backward dishonor their memory and ignore the blood and tears shed in the pursuit of liberty.
So today, on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, let’s stand together and honor what millions have fought for by taking meaningful action towards the preservation of our civil rights. Let’s continue that fight by demanding policies that invest in Texas children and families, laws that reward and protect the dignity of a hard day’s work, and rules that protect the right to vote.
Let’s recognize that while we have made great strides over the past half-century, we still have a long way to go. I hope you’ll join me in the fight.