Fifty years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Julian Barnes, NAACP chairman emeritus, said many students’ knowledge of the civil rights era can be boiled down to two names and four words: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and “I have a dream.”
But speakers at a Tuesday event at Howard University in Washington, co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Justice, argued that many inequalities still linger. Government officials and civil rights activists commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by detailing both the law’s legacy and the challenges still to come.
“Education, I’m convinced, is the civil rights issue of our generation,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the event (which was live-streamed). “If you can ride at the front of the bus, if you can drink from the same water fountain, but you cannot read, you’re not truly free.”
Duncan praised some accomplishments in education over the past five decades—rising high school graduation and college attendance rates, decreasing high school dropout rates for African-Americans and Latinos—but said there is much more work to do. In particular, he mentioned the persistence of the school-to-prison pipeline, not enough widespread access to early-childhood education, and a lack of resources and advanced classes in schools with high minority populations.
The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights fields about 10,000 complaints a year, Duncan said. “In a perfect world, maybe you wouldn’t need an office of civil rights anymore,” he noted.
This fall, public schools as a whole are predicted to be majority-minority for the first time in the country’s history—a sign, Duncan said, that this is a seminal moment for education and that this work is the right thing to do, not just for minority communities, but for the whole country.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also spoke, calling on Congress to renew the spirit of the Civil Rights Act with actions like ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens, strengthening workplace protections to prohibit pay discrimination against women, and updating voting rights legislation.
This month has seen several events across the country commemorating the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, signed into law on July 2, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Earlier this month, I went to a ceremony at the Education Department headquarters that introduced some of the surviving Freedom Riders to students from across the country.
Students today might not know the stories of the Freedom Riders (men and women who traveled by bus into the deep South to challenge segregation) or other civil rights activists. During a panel discussion that touched on the younger generation, Barnes said most states do not require civil rights to be taught in schools. The movement needs to be taught, he said, but that can only happen if people demand it.
Some of the early activists for civil rights were in college themselves at the time, and their actions helped sparked an entire movement, said Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, one of the original Freedom Riders.
“For the young folks, just find your cause and go do something,” she said. “You don’t know where it’ll lead. You just have to go for it.”