Jul 7, 2014
July 2 marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, this document declared all discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sex, whether it is practiced by public or private institutions, illegal.
But a law alone cannot guarantee respect for everyone’s civil rights – indeed, HUMAN rights, as Malcolm X put it. And we have been reminded of this fact once again in recent days, by the attacks on Central American refugees in Murrieta, California.
What eased the discrimination against black people and other historically oppressed groups in the U.S., at least for some of them and for a period of time, was not laws passed by politicians, but a massive social movement by black people. It was the Civil Rights Movement which forced the U.S. ruling class – and the politicians who spoke for it – to admit in July 1964 that the U.S. had not been the haven of “freedom and democracy” they had always bragged about. It forced them to promise that they would do something real about it.
Black people didn’t believe those promises. They responded to this law with a series of urban rebellions, starting with the so-called “Harlem Riot of 1964” only two weeks after the signing of the Act. Other uprisings followed quickly – in Jersey City, Chicago and Philadelphia, all in August 1964. A year later, in August 1965, Watts exploded – followed by a few other “riots” in the summer of 1966, and then dozens of them across the U.S. in 1967, including massive uprisings in Newark and Detroit.
That’s when black people, other minorities and women started to see some REAL changes – big companies hiring them for better-paying jobs, colleges admitting them, government expanding social programs against poverty and unemployment, etc.
Today, 50 years later, we see a reversal of all these gains – better-paying jobs disappear fast; college tuition, even for public colleges, has skyrocketed out of the reach of working-class families; social programs are constantly cut and threatened to be done away with altogether. All so that the capitalist class can increase its wealth and power, and so that government officials can shovel even more public money and assets their way. And we are told constantly to turn against other working people – white against black, young against old, American against Chinese or Mexican, “native” against “immigrant.”
There is a way out of this quagmire – a big fight, a mass movement that unifies working people. When black people started to organize to fight back against oppression in the 1940s, many people probably thought the odds were against them. But the Civil Rights Movement persisted and spread. It grew in numbers, strength and militancy through the 1950s and ‘60s, leading to a mass mobilization of black people. And it brought other parts of the oppressed to fight for their own needs, including the organized labor movement, which carried out waves of strikes – especially after black workers brought their militancy into the plants. That’s what brought real change, if only for a generation or two.
Half a century later, that’s the real meaning of the Civil Rights Movement and the black mobilization that it turned into.