- Associated Press - Monday, June 30, 2014

Telegraph Herald. June 29, 2014.

Civil Rights Act at 50: More work ahead

Later this week, the United States will mark the 50th anniversary of enactment of the Civil Rights Act, arguably the most significant federal legislation of the 20th century. The TH’s lead report today includes Dubuquers’ remembrances and observations, not only about that landmark event in 1964 but also how actions and attitudes have changed over the past half-century.

In many ways in many segments of society, they have evolved greatly and for the better, but in other ways there is still much more to be done - so much more that it might cause one to question whether there has been any progress the past 50 years.

Americans who were not yet born when the Civil Rights Act became law might find it difficult to fully understand or appreciate the social and political climate of the United States in the early 1960s. Segregation was not only common, especially in the South, it was the law of the land in some states, enforced by governors and police chiefs ordering the use of clubs, attack dogs and fire hoses.

In June 1963, responding to state officials’ physical resistance to desegregation of the University of Alabama, President John F. Kennedy told the nation, “Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every state of the union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety.” Later in his address, he said, “This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right.”

It was one thing for a liberal from the Northeast to call for a legislative response, but the prospects of federal civil rights legislation making it through Congress, with Southern lawmakers leading the resistance, were dim under JFK. However, Kennedy was assassinated less than six months after that speech, and the political landscape changed with Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson.

Not only was Johnson a Southerner, he was an experienced, hard-nosed politician. The Senate majority leader before becoming vice president, Johnson earned a reputation for getting things done - whatever it took. If he needed to be charming, Johnson would be charming. If he needed to cajole a reluctant senator or congressman, he would cajole. If it took arm-twisting, political trade-offs or thinly veiled threats, he would do it.

Johnson wanted Kennedy’s civil rights legislation to become law, and he used all his powers of persuasion and the presidency to get enough of his fellow Southerners to go along to succeed. The bill was signed July 2, 1964.

As Kennedy noted, “law alone cannot make men see right,” and advancements in civil rights have been sporadic and spotty. In countless communities across the country, there have been numerous occasions of “two steps forward, one step back.” Dubuque — not unlike other places — has experienced many instances where events and actions of progress are swiftly overshadowed by the insensitive and ignorant actions of a few. Critics are more than happy to dredge up those setbacks, no matter how far in the past they occurred.

The simple fact is that Dubuque cannot undo the past. It can only do what’s right in the present and plan for the future.

While reflecting on the importance of this landmark legislation, we would do well to remember that progress comes more through individual attitudes and conduct than laws. As Kennedy said in 1963, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

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Globe Gazette. June 29, 2014.

Don’t reduce personalized Social Security services

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