50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

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The Civil Rights Act was enacted on July 2, 1964 and prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin. It also provides the federal government with the powers to enforce desegregation. Civil rights activist Dr. Warren Stewart of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix and Matthew Whitaker, an Arizona State University Foundation professor of History, will discuss the law and its impact.

Ted Simons: The Civil Rights Act was signed into law 50 years ago today, on July 2nd, 1964. The law prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin. It also provides the federal government with the powers to enforce desegregation. Joining us tonight to discuss the Civil Rights Act are Dr. Warren Stewart of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, and Matthew Whitaker, an ASU Foundation Professor of History. Good to have you both here. Thank you so much for joining us. 50-year mark for the Civil Rights Act. Your thoughts?

Warren Stewart: It was a watershed event, and it is still producing freedom movements and liberation movements not only in this nation but all over the world.

Ted Simons: And how is it doing that? What did the Civil Rights Act do?

Warren Stewart: Well, it brought about emancipation and liberation in the modern day era. It said that Jim Crow laws, laws that affected people because of the color of their skin were no longer legal in these United States of America. So it was a major piece of legislation.

Ted Simons: Major piece of legislation, did the impact of this legislation, could you feel it immediately, or was this one of these things that developed over time?

Matthew Whitaker: Well, I think you could feel the euphoria, certainly among the activists community about the importance of having it enacted, because this was the culmination of 100 years of struggle from the beginning of the -- The end of the Civil War all the way up until 1964. And it created some monumental and historic things. One of the things that it created was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And Title VII was very important as well. That's one of those staples that we take for granted right now, so it was certainly felt at the time in terms of its importance. Its impact I think wouldn't be realized or felt for a little bit later on.

Ted Simons: And I want to get back to that in a second here, but you were alive for this. You were still a kid, but were you alive. What do you remember about all this?

Warren Stewart: Well I was from Kansas, and so believe it or not, in Kansas, many African-Americans were Republicans. And so the fact that a Democratic, Southern President pushed this bill through, that was in many cases the turning point for I know my family, and others to move and look at the Democratic party that now was fighting for the rights of people of color, of African-Americans yes.

Ted Simons: Were the older folks, were they pulling you aside and saying, this is what's-- Were they explaining what was happening, or were things happening so fast it was hard to do something like that?

Warren Stewart: Well, I understood in Kansas, even though it is not a southern state, I experienced Jim Crow laws; I had to go to the movie theater and watch it from the balcony. My grandfather was a chef at the leading restaurant in our town of Coffeyville, Kansas, though he cooked the food, got the reputation, we never could eat in the restaurant where he cooked the food. So I experienced this. I knew what was going on.

Ted Simons: You mentioned the Democratic shift here as far as attention is concerned. The impact of the JFK assassination and LBJ's ascendancy how did all that play into getting this enacted into law?

Matthew Whitaker: Well I think it created a sense of urgency. It reified and affirmed to people that America was at a critical juncture and there was a sense of urgency for changing, riding the ship, moving in the right direction, staying true to our principles. The rhetoric that was espoused in our documents of freedom, so those things I think it scared folks quite frankly into understanding that we were the fork in the road. And who we were as a nation would be determined by which direction we went.

Ted Simons: And the protests at the time, the impact of those?

Matthew Whitaker: Tremendous. Frederick Douglas said a hundred years earlier, there's no progress without struggle. Folks understood that even good-intentioned people, good-intentioned leaders needed to be empowered and compelled to act, and they could only do that by people protesting, speaking out on the street in their neighborhoods at the state level across the country.

Ted Simons: Agree?

Warren Stewart: And what we saw on television, I mean fire hoses rolling children, black children down the street, dogs tearing clothes away from people who simply wanted to be treated as equal that changed the sentiment of Civil Rights for the majority of the nation and even the world. And I think it was embarrassing, that motivated President Johnson, we can't let this happen.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, I mean I'm asking your memories and what family and friends and associates were thinking at the time, as far as white folks, in Coffeyville, Kansas, did you hear -- Was there much of a reaction? Was it anger, was it stubbornness? Do you remember anything?

Warren Stewart: Shortly after that Coffeyville, Kansas, elected the first African-American mayor of the city, and that was in the early 70's. He was a mortician. So the city rose up and said, we're going to be a part of this new movement for Civil Rights for all people.

Ted Simons: And again, we talk about what happened at the time, the protests and the change in leadership there at the White House, and the sense of urgency. You know 10 years earlier it was Brown versus the Board of Education. Was that something that was a bit of a launching pad for something like this?

Matthew Whitaker: Certainly. You know many folks say the Civil Rights Movement started the minute African-Americans got into college. But when you look at Brown versus Board of Education in many cases that was the trigger. You know, then you had the Montgomery bus boycott in '55 and ‘56, there were a number of different things that were unfolding over time, but certainly '53 was really the launching pad for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Warren Stewart: And it's ironic that Kansas was a place, Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, I went to integrated schools all of my life, but could not eat in a restaurant and could not go to the movie theater and sit on the main floor. In spite of what happened in Kansas in 1954.

Ted Simons: But did it feel like there was movement? Even before the Civil Rights Act was signed? With Brown v. Board of Education, in Kansas, did it feel like things were moving?

Warren Stewart: Yes. Yes. The schools became integrated. Yes.

Ted Simons: And that again became a launching pad, but you could feel that happening?

Warren Stewart: Yes, very much so.

Ted Simons: As far as now over the years, has the Civil Rights Act done what it was designed to do?

Matthew Whitaker: Yeah, that's the million dollar question. Martin Luther King actually said in a speech in Phoenix at Tanner AME Church and then at the Goodwill auditorium at Arizona State University in 1964, he said this is the first step. We have a long way to go. Not everyone is going to accept this right away. Implementation is going to be very important. It's going to take a long time to implement. There's going to be resistance. And that resistance is going to manifest itself in lots of different ways, often times in extra legal measures that undermine the civil rights movement. He was a prophet, he was prophetic, that's exactly what has happened. So much so, that some folks can't even witness or recognize inequality or the duplicity or the racism. Because it doesn't look like it did back then with the dogs and the signs etc etc.

Ted Simons: So with that in mind, the Civil Rights Act -- Everyone would agree I believe most people would agree an achievement, progress, forward. Forward enough, forward the way they thought at the time it would move us forward? What do you think?

Matthew Whitaker: I think at the time, yes. The folks that I've-- At the time, yes. The folks I've interviewed, they said that you know in hindsight, when they were younger, sure, they might have thought about different -- They underestimated the importance of economics in the movement, things of that nature. But at the time it was monumental. It's hard to explain to folks now how difficult it was to get the Civil Rights Act in the first place. It took 100 years of bitter struggle to get the civil rights act. And a courageous president who stood in front of Congress and said, quoting Martin Luther King, we shall overcome. His own party was angry with him with that , particularly folks in the south.

Ted Simons: Is that what you found, same kind of recollection for you as far what you remember?

Warren Stewart: Very much so. The last public speech Lyndon B Johnson, 1972, December, in a symposium on civil rights at the LBJ library, he said there was still injustice, there was still intolerance, we must have courage, our work continues, we shall overcome my friends. The last public speech he made, he died a month later of a heart attack.

Ted Simons: That's 1972, we are now 2014. Would he still make that speech today?

Warren Stewart: He would need to make it, Martin Luther King would need to make it, and we have to make it. Because the statistics show that racism, systemic racism in health and education, economic development, in the environment. There's so much systemic racism -- In immigration. Look what's going on in the Congress right now. Speaker Boehner needs to have the courage of a Lyndon B. Johnson and end this challenge of immigration reform.

Ted Simons: You had talked about, you referred earlier to the fact that people don't recognize the same kind of racism. It's maybe the same old line in a brand-new bottle if you will. Talk more about that.

Matthew Whitaker: Well some of it is still there. When you see discrimination and poor treatment of immigrants, when you see violence in our streets, when you see horrible relationships between law enforcement and urban communities in some cases, when you look at Oscar Grant, when you look at Trayvon Martin, when you look at hate crimes, and you look at the crimes against the LGBT community, these type of discriminations are still here. They haven't gone away. I think there's lots of progress, we have Jay Z now, we have Beyonce, I like Beyonce, I couldn't possibly be racist! You have this sort of situation in the United States now where you have these statistical outliers sociologists would say right, but if you look at every indices as the pastor has indicated, people of color are still at the bottom of all of them. And the question has to be, why? We don't come out of the womb unequal.

Ted Simons: Yet - And yet let me ask this -- You said it took 100 years, 100 years to get to that Civil Rights Act. If it took that long, and race is a hard fabric in American history, some would argue it's not bad. The development and the progress we've seen since 1964. Is that a speechist argument is that valid?

Matthew Whitaker: No it's not bad. We've had you know obvious substantive progress. But to the degree that we need to go further, that should show folks how far we needed to go in 1964. We were a long way away, and we are still a long way away from parity. Not just changing laws, we can't be lost on that. I think that's what some of the millennials struggle with, it's not just about changing laws, it's actually about parity and equality. We're not there.

Ted Simons: When you talk to younger folks these days, first of all, do they understand the impact of the Civil Rights Act?

Warren Stewart: Not automatically. We have to sit down and that's why this anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is so important, to explain to them the opportunities, the doors open for you now, came at a high cost to your ancestors, to political leaders, and you must continue the fight to make sure we don't go in reverse.

Ted Simons: Do you get the same impression as the younger people these days just aren't quite as aware as maybe they should?

Matthew Whitaker: Yes, I agree with that. I think this generation, the millenials in particular, are the most tolerant and inclusive generation we've ever had, but I think we have failed in some cases by not giving them the proper lens and the equipment to be able to see where their problems are. They don't see them. They're looking for antiquated ways of identifying racism. They're looking for that, and as a consequence they're not seeing it. So they're assuming somehow that the problems aren't there. And that's what we have to educate and lead and show them.

Ted Simons: If they're not seeing it as -- With these different kind of glasses on, does that mean that these problems can be solved in a different way? Does that make sense? In other words, we saw protests; we saw crazy stuff there in the 60's. Just -- You mentioned black and white films and the dogs and the whole 9 yards. We're not seeing that these days for the most part. Without seeing that, how do you keep progress?

Warren Stewart: Well, with the partisanship and the intransigent that we're experiencing in Washington, DC and on the state levels, just yesterday people with flags turned back buses full of immigrant children and women trying to go to a federal facility. And they said we don't want you here. That frightened me. If we're not careful the young people don't pick up the baton we will go in reverse.

Ted Simons: Are the young people ready to pick up that baton?

Matthew Whitaker: I think they're equipped in ways that previous generations weren't. And they're not equipped in ways that previous generations were. And that -- Bridging that gap is something that we have to do.

Ted Simons: Interesting, all right last question here-- Legacy of the Civil Rights Act. What do you think it is?

Matthew Whitaker: Openness and opportunity. The fact that I'm sitting here talking to you and I hold the position that I hold right now, I'm living, breathing proof of the effect of the Civil Rights Act.

Ted Simons: Legacy of the Civil Rights Act.

Warren Stewart: God is on the side of justice and liberty for all.

Ted Simons: Gentlemen, we thank you both for joining us. We appreciate it.

Warren Stewart: Thank you.

Matthew Whitaker: Thank you.

Dr. Warren Stewart:Civil Rights Activist, First Institutional Baptist Church; Matthew Whitaker:History Professor, Arizona State University Foundation;

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