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A Win for Civil Rights


For many Americans, 1964 was a year of hope tempered by tragedy. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, elected officials—who had resisted passing the Civil Rights Act despite the murder of activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing deaths of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama—were finally pressured into action. The CRA, signed into law on July 2, 1964, ushered in the end of legal apartheid.

A half-century later, it’s time to celebrate, but also to reflect. The CRA was the culmination of a journey that had begun during Reconstruction a century earlier. Over the decades, the fight for racial equality had featured unlikely coalitions between the poor and the powerful, blacks and whites, men and women, preachers and prisoners. As our nation entered the 1960s, one of the most notable of these coalitions was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an interracial group of student activists.

In June 1964, SNCC launched its Freedom Summer project, in which volunteers entered Mississippi determined to register as many black voters as possible. On June 21, three volunteers went missing outside tiny Philadelphia, Mississippi. The bodies of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney would not be recovered until August, but their fellow activists suspected their fate much earlier.

The martyrdom of these three young men should move us to go on fighting for equality for as long as it takes to achieve it, and the truth is that we have not yet attained that goal. Over the five decades since the passage of the CRA, progress has been halting and Janus-faced. True, blacks have achieved a measure of success undreamed of in 1964: in 2006, Massachusetts elected its first black governor, and in 2008 and again in 2012, the country elected an African American president. But there are more blacks in prison now, by far, than fifty years ago. African Americans remain more likely to attend segregated schools and live in segregated neighborhoods. They face higher rates of unemployment and more often lack access to health care.

Social justice, unlike time, does not move inexorably forward. Yet as a historian, I believe that the dream Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others fought and died for can still be achieved in our time. If the last fifty years have illuminated nothing else, it’s that when Americans tackle big challenges with even bigger ambitions, anything is possible.

Peniel Joseph is a professor of history at Tufts and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He is the author, most recently, of Stokely: A Life.

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