History moving sideways – 50 years after the Civil Rights Act

Monday 14 April 2014 07.47

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By Caitriona Perry, Washington Correspondent

As he arrived into the hall at the Lyndon B Johnson Library in Texas last week, Barack Obama apologised for being a little late.

The delay, he said, was caused by his wife Michelle playing him a tape of Lady Bird Johnson critiquing her husband’s presidential performance.

Nothing has changed in 50 years, joked Obama. But of course everything has changed.

50 years ago, someone who looked like Obama wouldn’t have been allowed to sit next to a white person in a room like this, let alone be the President.

50 years ago, black churches were regularly bombed and police set dogs on black school children…

50 years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, was thrust into power suddenly and tragically … he pledged to – and did – enact the Civil Rights Act… laying down yet another stone on the path to racial equality started by Abraham Lincoln.

It’s an over-used phrase, but this was truly landmark legislation. It outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race, along with religion, gender and other criteria. It ended racial segregation at schools, workplaces and public facilities.

In contrast to Barack Obama’s unshielded disdain for Congress and its logjam, LBJ used all his political nous to convince Republicans and members of his own party that racial equality was a worthy endeavour.

Even after his staff told him to drop this lost cause.

But Johnson reportedly retorted – What the hell is the Presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in?

And so the legislation passed.

Signing it, LBJ said it would close the springs of racial poison. He further secured equality with the Voting Rights Act the following year.

But that path to equal rights was yet to have some twists and turns – there were events in US history that set bravery and bigotry side by side – such as America’s own Bloody Sunday when 600 civil rights protestors were clubbed and gassed by police.

It was fitting though that the President leading the 50th commemoration events is an African American.

Barack Obama delivered a rousing speech – invoking the Declaration of Independence repeating those “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal”.

Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W Bush echoed his sentiments. They were also in Austin to speak on the 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking law.

But while the United States can say that having a black President shows racial discrimination is no more, statistics tell a different story.

Compared with 50 years ago, black people still make up a higher proportion of poor with a quarter of black families living below the poverty line.

African American unemployment is still roughly twice that of white unemployment; they still account for a higher proportion of prisoners, black men make an average salary just two thirds that of white men and white students still out perform black students.

Marking the anniversary President Obama said that history does not always move forward, sometimes it moves backwards too.

Despite his election to the highest office in this land, it seems in certain respects when it comes to racial equality to use his words, history is just moving sideways.

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