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Valley leaders mark 60th anniversary of landmark Civil Rights Act

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson reaches to shake hands with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after presenting the civil rights leader with one of the 72 pens used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1964. Surrounding the president, from left, are, Rep. Roland Libonati, D-Ill., Rep. Peter Rodino, D-N.J., Rev. King, Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y., and behind Celler is Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League. (AP Photo)

YOUNGSTOWN — The modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s can be viewed as a series of interconnected parts in which, piece by fragile piece, results that changed the nation were reached.

Such was the case regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, three Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past members say.

“What (Dr. Martin Luther) King (Jr.) and other civil rights activists did in 1963 was create the context in which the bill could happen,” Miah Pierce, one of the members said. “The Birmingham protests showed the strength of nonviolence by getting in the face of police and the white business community, and in front of the cameras.”

Pierce, Lil Snyder and Brittany Bailey shared the events and circumstances that led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing into law the landmark act on July 2, 1964.

The three of them discussed the major piece of legislation during a commemoration event Tuesday evening at the Tyler History Center, 325 W. Federal St., downtown, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bill’s signing.

Hosting the gathering was the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Committee of the Mahoning Valley.

After President John F. Kennedy saw on TV the disturbing images of thousands of young people being arrested during the May 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, he gave a nationally televised speech June 11, 1963, in which he promised to ask Congress for “a sweeping civil rights bill,” Pierce said.

Less than an hour after his speech, civil rights icon Medgar Evers was assassinated at his Jackson, Mississippi, home, one of the tragedies that “forced people nationwide to stop looking away,” she added.

Kennedy came up with the idea for the bill, but because he was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, Johnson signed the bill into law.

Under the law were 11 provisions, core components of which banned segregation and discrimination in public accommodations based on one’s race, color, national origin and religion. The legislation also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Nevertheless, the bill faced several hurdles before its passage. Largely because of many southern Democrats’ staunch opposition, the legislation was stuck in the House Rules Committee, and some southern Senate Democrats used the filibuster to try to kill it.

In early 1964, however, House supporters overcame the Rules Committee obstacle by threatening to send the bill to the floor without committee approval. In addition, the bipartisan leadership of Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, D-Minnesota, and Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen, R-Illinois, overcame the filibuster, and the bill passed 73-27 in the Senate.

Many historians and others often refer to the law as the most important civil rights legislation since the 12-year period of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877.

More recently, a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees who are gay, lesbian or transgender from being terminated based on sexual orientation.

A key precedent was set 10 years earlier, with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson case and declared “separate but equal” facilities as unconstitutional, Snyder noted.

Other historical events also played pivotal roles in shaping the landscape for the bill, she said.

“It took years of activism, courage and the leadership of civil rights icons, from the (Aug. 28, 1955,) murder of Emmett Till to the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to the Little Rock Nine to the children of Birmingham to Freedom Summer and the murder of three civil rights workers (Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner) to bring the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to fruition,” Snyder added.

Bailey expounded on the role the Ku Klux Klan murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner on June 21, 1964, in Neshoba County, Mississippi, had on its passage.

“The killing of these three civil rights workers, two of whom were white, shocked the nation and caused President Johnson to get the filibuster to end, and the bill passed in the Senate,” she said, adding, “It had already been passed in the House of Representatives.”

Other events that contributed to its eventual passage included the February 1960 sit-in movement at an F.W. Woolworth store’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, as well as the 1961 Freedom Rides through the South that began in Washington, D.C., and which the Congress of Racial Equality had organized, she continued.

Despite the passage of six decades since the bill became law, efforts continue today to turn the clock back on civil rights progress, because some misguided people think inclusion is harmful, Jaladah Aslam of the planning committee, said.

“By going backwards, I think we’re harming ourselves,” she said, adding that the 1964 law was a victory for all Americans, not just blacks.

Also, fostering greater inclusion in our democracy carries great economic benefits, Aslam said.

Attendees were shown a documentary on the law, in which the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis said didn’t focus enough on voting rights and housing issues. As a result, King asked Johnson for a voting rights act, to which the president told him initially that this wasn’t the right time for such a move because it would not garner enough congressional votes.

Eventually, though, the Voting Rights Act was passed Aug. 6, 1965.

In the film, Lewis also gave his account of the 1964 law’s importance, saying it doesn’t matter if a person is black, white, gay or straight.

“We all live in one house,” he said.

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