The Civil Rights Act After Twenty Years. Part Three: Comments

By Harold Fleming

Vol. 7, No. 1, 1985, pp. 13-14

I'm want to footnote some of the things said in the excellent statements that Harry and Julius have just made. And I'm going to try not to celebrate the problem anymore than I can help.

Among the many anniversaries we're having here, I'm having my thirty-seventh anniversary of association with the Southern Regional Council. Things do look bleak now and it's very disturbing, but I do get a little comfort by casting my mind back four decades and thinking how really hopeless things looked then.

I want to second what Julius has said about emulating some of the efforts of the past. There is a similarity in the situation now and the situation leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. What was happening then was an effort to destroy a race mythology in the South and the nation. That effort required a great deal of work of different kinds by different people: the litigation, the student protest, the work of groups seeking to educate public opinion, the work to get the ballot and make it effective.

Parts of that mythology are enjoying a resurgence today. I'm sad to say that we haven't had enough advocates and forceful speakers, enough people of persuasion and prestige on our side to offset the constant stream of simplistic statements which say that blacks and other minorities would be better off today if there had never been such a thing as affirmative action, if there had never been the court


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rulings and the legislation, the supportive federal programs. When people hear this enough--especially people who didn't live through that history-it begins to sound very plausible. They begin to nod yes and say "That's right." Especially when they hear it from some blacks who, incredibly enough, seem to have persuaded themselves--although some of them would not be where they are today were it not for those programs and for affirmative action--that ability is enough and is always rewarded.

I think the job before us now--just as an agenda was created during the 1940s and the 1950s that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964--is to build a new agenda that is designed to expose and to counteract the body of racial mythology in its present form. I think what we need is not so much another Civil Rights Act, as we need enforcement of what we've got at all levels of government. We need voices who will explain to people why its in the self-interest of this society and country to have all its citizens well educated, well housed, and treated without discrimination. We must win this battle for public opinion in this country which we've been losing badly.

I think some of us have to reexamine some of our strategies, to see how unintentionally, in the effort to accent how acute many of our problems still are, it becomes fashionable not only to say that things are bad but that nothing has been accomplished--that blacks and minorities are worse off today than they were twenty years ago. Well, of course this is not true. To say it plays into the hands of the makers of the new mythology, into the hands of those who falsely proclaim that nothing helps, that the programs don't work, that the people don't respond, so why throw all this money uselessly at problems.

We have to go back and show again that these many efforts, these maligned programs do produce results, and these results are seen in the achievements of millions of black and minority Americans who never had any chance in the old days.

Many of the things in Southern Regional Council's history are very well suited to the debunking of the neoconservative mythology and to the building of a new agenda. That's what the Southern Regional Council was started to do and what it's been all about for all these years. We've always recognized that you've got to win some of the battles in the public argument; that you've got to be out there at the state and local level--worrying about what people are, hearing, about what they're feeling and about what they're thinking, about what kind of facts they're getting. We helped do it before, we can help do it again.

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.

Harold Fleming, director of the Potomac Institute, is a former executive director of the Southern Regional Council.