Glenn Wilson, then 50, walks the Birwood Wall behind his boyhood home on Mendota in 2006. The 6-foot-high site, now a haven for art, for decades represented a barrier between blacks and whites in northwest Detroit. The roots of the city's current failings can be found in its stubborn racial divisions, Keith writes. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a capstone achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of its passage presents a moment for celebration and an opportunity to reflect on its contemporary significance.
The signing of the legislation came one year after a momentous period in American history. That year — 1963 — marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by then-President Abraham Lincoln. My wife Rachel and I celebrated Lincoln’s birthday at the White House Emancipation Day hosted by President John F. Kennedy.
In June, I marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King down Woodward in Detroit, where he first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In August, we were back in our nation’s capital for the March on Washington, listening again to King’s vision for our country.
Sadly, Kennedy would be assassinated that year. In the wake of the president’s death, then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson would become president and was able to force passage of Kennedy’s signature civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened new doors of opportunity, particularly in the areas of employment and public accommodations.
But the history of American race relations is one of progress and pushback. The evils of racism are constantly mutating and taking on new forms. To be effective, civil rights law must be able to anticipate and address this reality. Every generation fights a renewed struggle.
For example, few people are taught in school that the most significant civil rights legislation before 1964 was the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This law was passed the same year my father, Perry A. Keith, was born in Meriwether County, Ga., himself the son of former slaves.
Unfortunately, the 1875 Civil Rights Act was a dead letter, even upon adoption. The federal courts were already busy dismantling Reconstruction and undermining the protections of the post-Civil War constitutional amendments. By the time my father moved to Detroit and I was born in 1922, Jim Crow Segregation was firmly entrenched and there was little respect for civil rights in the South or the North.
Voting rights is another tragic example of progress and pushback. The 15th Amendment guaranteed newly freed slaves the right to vote. This right was violently taken away by the wave of white supremacy driving southern redemption at the end of the 1800s, only to be truly redeemed by the blood of civil rights martyrs like Medgar Evers and civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
No civil right is more important than the right to vote. As such, I have never been so saddened and distraught than I have been lately by the seemingly endless efforts of states across the country trying to take away this precious right by arbitrarily making it harder and not easier for citizens to vote.
Against this backdrop, what are we to make of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 50 years later? Not surprisingly, there continues to be progress and pushback. The willingness of whites to sit in the same restaurant or stay in the same motel as blacks did not always translate into an acceptance of blacks in predominately white neighborhoods, schools or workplaces.
More troubling has been the failure of courts to respond adequately to the changing realities of racism in America — intentional and structural. In the face of the complicated social phenomena of race, courts increasingly invoke simple platitudes, pretending that problems of race and civil rights are no longer serious concerns. This is most tragically reflected in the increasing willingness of courts to embrace the cruel myth of colorblindness.
The best rejoinder to the pretention that race no longer matters is the present reality of Detroit. Fifty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, we live in one of the most racially and economically segregated regions of the country. We are far more segregated and divided today than we were 50 years ago. This racial division and spatial segregation lies at the heart of each of Detroit’s current problems — bankruptcy, blight, emergency management, the lack of regional transportation and the failed state of public education. The problems today in cities like Detroit are civil rights problems.
The 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act should be a time for resolve and recommitment, not nostalgia. Fifty years later, we still have only a skeletal foundation in place for the monumental changes that must take place if King’s dream is to become a living reality.
Our generation may be the last one to have a chance; a chance to balance the scales of justice, open the doors of opportunity and break the chains of bondage. Although King’s dream seems to have faded in recent years, it remains the best dream we have, and the truest vision for a better tomorrow.
Damon J. Keith is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.