On this Independence Day — as we celebrate the struggles that were fought and the sacrifices that were made in the name of freedom — we also commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The landmark legislation was one of the most important laws in this nation’s civil rights history.
And sadly, the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t stand a chance of passing in today’s harsh political climate.
Signed into law on July 2, 1964, the Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In addition, the law barred segregation in schools, the workplace and public accommodations, and forbade unequal application of voter registration requirements.
The Civil Rights Act was enacted following the brutal lynching just days earlier of three civil rights workers by the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan. The young men — James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24 — were registering black people to vote during Freedom Summer.
Southern conservatives, mostly segregationist Democrats, opposed the legislation as a threat to states’ rights and individual liberty. Rep. Howard W. Smith (D-Virginia), then-chair of the House Rules Committee, added an amendment to prohibit sex discrimination, reportedly in an attempt to kill the bill.
In the end, the bill passed with a vote of 290-130 in the House, and 73-27 in the Senate, receiving a majority of support from both parties, including liberal and moderate Republicans.
Fifty years later, it is highly unlikely the Civil Rights Act would have reached President Obama’s desk for his signature. First of all, the current obstructionist, Republican-controlled Congress does not pass legislation these days, and certainly nothing that the President wants or that could make him look good and bolster his legacy. Moreover, the Tea Party-led GOP, like their Dixiecrat forebearers, is leading the charge against civil rights.
For example, since 2010, 22 Republican-controlled states have passed restrictions on voting because this is their only path to victory under their current platform. The country is browning, voters of color are on the upswing, and the GOP is chasing a dwindling demographic of aggrieved white voters.
Voting rights once enjoyed bipartisan support until Obama came to town. But now, the GOP support for voting rights is nowhere to be found.
Even Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), who owes black folks for his recent primary victory against the Tea Party onslaught, supported last year’s Supreme Court decision that defanged the Voting Rights Act. Cochran and all of his GOP colleagues had voted to reauthorize the law in 2006.
There is additional proof the Civil Rights Act would not have passed in 2014. Women’s rights are under siege as well. In the Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court has enabled conservatives who would deny contraceptive coverage to female employees based on so-called “religious liberty,” specifically the religious views of the employer.
Meanwhile, where is the religious liberty for Muslim Americans, who face widespread employment discrimination, especially in red states?
Although immigrants have been a crucial part of the American landscape, immigrants’ rights are not valued in this country, as an unjust immigration policy separates families. The Republican Congress killed immigration reform because it depends on the demonization of Latinos.
Conservatives characterize undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens” in order to dehumanize them and enhance their value as political fodder. Never mind all the children being held in private detention centers after crossing the U.S. border and escaping the violence in Central America.
Further, our criminal justice system is a civil rights disaster. The war on drugs continues to ensnare African-Americans and Latinos, and blacks receive 20 percent longer sentences than whites for the same crime. No one imprisons more people than the “land of the free” in absolute numbers or per capita.
And Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world — five times Iran’s incarceration rate, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s. Mostly black men languish in solitary confinement and await execution in Angola Prison, a former slave plantation.
Unfortunately, public schools are now more segregated than they were 40 years ago, with black children attending school in racially and economically isolated communities.
According to a UCLA study, while white and Asian students are more likely to attend middle-class schools, black and Latino students are more likely to attend schools with poor students. Schools are in crisis in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia due to underfunding, closures and the siphoning of resources to charter schools.
Meanwhile, in predominantly black Detroit — victim of a hostile takeover by Republican Governor Rick Snyder — thousands of poor residents are losing their access to water due to an inability to pay their bills. How have we moved from fighting for the right to drink at a water fountain to struggling for the right to drink water?
Sadly, on this July 4, civil rights are on the retreat, and the Civil Rights Act would not have the votes.
With a Supreme Court that opposes civil rights, a hostile Congress and regressive state legislatures throughout the country, America is slipping, losing its will to protect the basic freedoms of its most vulnerable citizens. But if you want the right to carry a gun to church, you’re covered.
In the meantime, happy Independence Day.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove.