The historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 happened a little over 50 years ago. Many in the civil rights world have scrutinized the outcomes that those 50 years have yielded, with much of the conversation focusing on the impact on the African American community. This paints the picture of a Black/White binary that perpetually frames many civil rights conversations in America. However, the Civil Rights Act has had an impact on a range of minority groups, including Latinos. Continue reading Breaking Down the Binary: The Impact of the Civil Rights Act on Latino Communities→
During a panel for high school students interested in law, one student asked, “How can we be sure that a law school will provide us with the skills that we need to do the things that we’d like to do?” My response was that although faculty and administrators may help students attain the skills they need, students themselves can, and should, play an active role in their own education. Had I been asked that question one year earlier I may have had a different response. My perspective on the student’s role in law school and higher education generally has been influenced by my involvement in the seminar 64@50: The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
During the Fall semester of 2014, Columbia Law students organized and led a seminar focused on the landmark civil rights legislation enacted a half-century ago. One constant throughout the sessions was the level of student involvement in shaping and leading the discussions. By taking on an increased role in fashioning their own legal education, Columbia Law students were not only studying an important event in the civil rights movement, they were also exhibiting the character that moved young people to challenge the status quo, and impact the institutions of their day, over fifty years ago.
Fifty years ago, masses took to the streets to demand equal rights under law in this country, culminating in one of the most comprehensive statutory overhauls of U.S. history. The 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA) represented a political moment, one of social inertia and progressive change. Moreover, it was an inclusive outcome, recognizing the many interwoven strands of discrimination; to root out discrimination entirely, the CRA was designed to attack from all sides, be it discrimination based upon race or sex. Fifty years have passed, but more keenly than ever do we see still-existent tears in the fabric of American society, even amongst those seeking to repair it. If we look closely at the history of the CRA, we can see the moment may continue on anomalously.
As lore would have it, the inclusion of the Sex Amendment to the CRA boiled down to a stab at political jettisoning; that is, certain Congressmen believed in earnest that adding “sex” to the protections of the Act would effectively bury it. While some parties certainly did—and continue—to believe this tale, the Sex Amendment instead stands as testament to a long-fought battle by women such as Alice Paul, whose earliest claim to fame was her status as a militant suffragist of the Pankhurst ilk. As far as Paul was concerned, where the Equal Rights Amendment had failed, the CRA might succeed. Congressman Herbert Smith—a friend to Paul whose political interests conveniently lay in deregulating the female workforce—submitted the Sex Amendment. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now-faded black-and-white pictures remind us of that famous moment in Selma, Alabama: There marched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, physically locked together in a common front.
And so goes the histories of many of the nation’s civil-rights movements. While the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was undeniably about a long history of oppression for Blacks in America, something more was in the air. Blacks did not just receive their rights through their protests that resulted in their Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead, they pulled together unions, churches, civic organizations, and students (all comprising many racial groups) to craft an Act that satiated a multiplicity of interests. Similarly, the more recent LGBT-rights movement built momentum by drawing in straight allies, some perhaps on the Supreme Court.
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prompted considerable reflection in law schools across the nation. As well it should have. The human, political, and legal drama involved in its passage rivals few other pieces of legislation in American history. When combined with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, these pieces of legislation marked the culmination of civil rights leaders’ efforts to actualize the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process for all Americans. Yet despite the transformative nature of this legislation, it plays a minor role in the foundational law school curriculum. Instead, the achievements of the twentieth century civil rights movement are often taught through a series of Supreme Court cases spurred by admittedly brilliant appellate lawyers and legal activists who creatively strategized successful litigation tactics. No one can dismiss the magnitude of these individuals’ efforts. But often overlooked in this narrative is the role played by legislation, as well as the complex interplay of activists, policymakers, and interest groups who helped garner sufficient support to pass civil rights legislation in the face of obstinate opposition. To address these issues (and more), Columbia Law School students organized and led a seminar titled “64@50: The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Continue reading 64@50: Student Reading Groups→