The Civil Rights Act After Twenty Years: Part One: Where We've Been and Where We Are

By Harry S. Ashmore

Vol. 7, No. 1, 1985, pp. 8-10

One of the things that disturbs me when people look back at the history we've lived through--some of us have lived through a good deal more of it than you younger ones--is that we tend to forget its contemporary context. A great deal has happened since 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But a great deal had to happen before Congress could be persuaded even to put civil rights on its agenda. There was the long, lonely effort of NMCP lawyers in the federal courts that finally ended the white primary and gave blacks the ballot. And, of course, ten years before the Civil Rights Act there was the Brown decision by the United States Supreme Court ordering desegregation in the public schools. But Brown did a great deal more than that.

Precedents and Pressure

The Brown decision dealt not only with the specific matter of public education but also, for the first time since Reconstruction, threw the full weight of the federal government behind enforcement of the civil rights of black individuals. It did that by reversing the old states' rights doctrine that had let the states of the South pursue whatever kind of restrictive policies they cared to impose upon their black citizens.

Those of you who are old enough to remember what the South was like thirty years ago when Brown came down will recall that it was virtually as segregated a society as the one that exists in South Africa today. There was no public intermingling of the races. There was no permissible social contact between the races. Blacks and whites were separated in the schools. Blacks, denied the ballot, effectively had no voice in public affairs, and had little opportunity to move toward their own economic advancement.


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The practical results of Brown followed when black Southerners began to understand the implications of that decision. White Southerners did not choose to carry out the desegregation mandates of the courts--that would take years--but blacks began to realize that they now would have the support of the federal government if they chose to take their case into the streets and defy recalcitrant whites situated in the courthouses and the state houses of the Southern states.

And so began what came to be called the Civil Rights Movement--the mass protest in which for the first time in our history blacks were moving under their own leadership and in their own right to demand simple justice. They began to get results. They had mounted political pressure that had to be recognized.

First, then, came precedents set by the federal courts with their relative independence from the popular vote. Then came pressure brought by blacks and their white supporters--the protest marches that provided the high drama we all remember. It took all that to move a reluctant Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.

From Civil Liberties to Civil Rights

Also, I think we need to remember that it required further action by the courts to implement the Civil Rights Act and the measures that followed. Simply declaring that blacks had a right to attend any school that was maintained with public funds didn't result in any real change. What came to be called affirmative action was adopted when the Supreme Court recognized that decrees ordering the Southern school districts to integrate their separate schools into single systems were being accepted only in theory. As long as the courts held that the test would only be whether the schools were moving in good faith toward compliance, there was no real movement except in the border states and a few of the upcountry Southern districts with small black populations.

Real compliance began when the judges--I think reluctantly--had to assume the assignment powers of local school districts and establish a qualitative test of racial balance to affirm good faith. Once they did that the barriers began to crumble.

Following the courts' lead, Congress was persuaded to move in other fields where something more than a court decision was required to insure that black citizens were entitled to rights previously reserved for whites in housing, education and employment. This marked the transition from the traditional concept of civil liberties to civil rights. The main instrument for enforcement was the withholding of federal benefits.

Mr. Reagan's Arrant Nonsense

Now affirmative action these days--in some strange and remarkable way--has become a negative term. I suppose we have to recognize that one of the results of the last election was to affirm the position of the Reagan Administration, which at the outset proclaimed that affirmative action is not only unnecessary--since economic growth will take care of all discrimination problems--but is actually a violation of the professed purposes of this sovereign nation.

Mr. Reagan and his neo-conservatives supporters go so far as to contend that the results of the programs which were put into place following the declaration of a War on Poverty during the Kennedy-Johnson years not only were wrong in principle as well as being practical failures, but actually proved to be a handicap that delayed black progress.

I find this astonishing.

In Los Angeles a few weeks ago I took part in a session held on the thirtieth anniversary of the Brown decision. One of the people on the panel with me was Linda Chavez, staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights. I listened in disbelief to her argument that all the positive changes that have taken place over the last thirty years took lace despite federal programs, not because of them, that blacks and other minorities would have been better off had none of these programs existed. Now for anybody who has lived through these years, whether in the South or outside it, this has to be considered arrant nonsense.

Certainly, many federal programs fell short of what we hoped for them. We had reason to be critical of some, then and now. But T find the argument that the federal government has no affirmative role in the slow and agonizing process of bringing minorities into the mainstream is about


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as shocking as anything I've heard in covering politics for fifty years--yet that is the position of the Reagan Administration.

Where We Are

When the Reaganites talk about a new federalism what they really mean is the old federalism. They would repeal the Brown decision and go back to Plessy--contending that the states should have the final word on all these matters, and that it's no concern of the federal government if black citizens are deprived of their declared constitutional rights.

I don't think that this Administration is going to get away with the repeal of Brown, but we are certainly going to see--as we've already seen in the last four years--the emphasis continue to shift away from the pursuit of affirmative action on behalf of civil rights for minorities.

When we look around today we can agree that certainly there has been a great deal of progress. People in this room know that as well as anybody. The black middle class--which is about a third of the black population--has more or less been accepted by the white middle class on more or less equal terms. The working poor-another third of the black population-benefited for a considerable time from the affirmative efforts of government. Now, they're suffering heavy penalties through the cutbacks in federal programs under the Reagan Administration.

Then there's the last third--what's now called the underclass--the people below the poverty line. This group includes about a third of all blacks and about ten percent of the whites. Their situation is about what it was before there was a Civil Rights Act. In many cases it is probably worse. The programs that were intended to help them to move out of poverty are the ones that have been abandoned or are being condemned today by the Reaganites--the people who say that this is a problem that is beyond the reach and scope of the federal government and, if it really exists, should be left to state and local government.

I think anybody who knows our history knows what the results of that would be.

So this is where we are. I don't think the Reagan Aministration [sic] is going to completely undo the progress we've made in these twenty years; but certainly effective movement toward guaranteeing equality of opportunity for all Americans has been halted.

During the fortieth anniversary meeting of the Southern Regional Council, held in Atlanta this past November, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Harry Ashmore, Julius L. Chambers-director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and former SRG executive director Harold Fleming reflected upon the status of civil rights twenty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. An additional comment was offered by Paul Gaston, professor of history at the University of Virginia and current president of the Southern Regional Council. In the following pages, we present the perspectives of these long-time observers of, and participants in, Southern changes.

Harry S. Ashmore's most recent book is Hearts and Minds: A History of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan (McGraw-Hill), winner of the Southern Regional Council's Lillian Smith Award in 1982.