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Remembering The Victories Of The 1964 Civil Rights Act


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Summer is upon us and this is the time any of us like to kick back with a beach book or a big stack of magazines. But this summer marks the 50th anniversary of a number of pivotal events in the civil rights movement. It's known as Freedom Summer. So we decided to put some items on our reading list that explore the theme of freedom. Our next guest wrote a piece for Harper's Magazine about one of the victories of that era that some people seem to diminish these days - the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which became law 50 years ago this summer. Randall Kennedy, professor of law at Harvard University, says the Civil Rights Act, especially one of its seemingly least controversial provisions banning discrimination of privately owned places used by the public, is far more consequential than many people seem to think. And he gives it its due in a piece of the June issue of Harper's, called "The Civil Rights Act's Unsung Victory And How It Changed the South." And he's with us now from a studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Professor Kennedy, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: You said, in the piece, that a lot of people don't remember the circumstances that gave rise to this provision, but they have sense of it from scenes like - for example, I'm thinking in the movie "the Butler," where there's a very vivid scene of the lunch counter sit ins, where college students tried to demand service, and the people are throwing things at them and, like, pouring, you know, coffee in their faces and so forth. You used a personal experience of your own, and I just wanted to ask if you don't mind telling that story?

KENNEDY: Sure. I begin the piece by recalling trips that my family would take from Washington, D.C. to Columbia, South Carolina. I was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1954. My parents left South Carolina when I was quite young. They were refugees from the Jim Crow South. But we went back often. And when we would go back, my mother would - and father - would meticulously pack. And when I was a kid, I thought that this was just all in fun. They would put in lots of candy. They would - you know - deviled eggs, chicken. There would just be these coolers full of stuff. And it was only later, that I realized and learned why they were so meticulous. They were so meticulous because, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were lots of places that one to go in the country, particularly in the South, and it was perfectly legal for places of public accommodation to discriminate against people on the basis of race. And my parents wanted to protect us, insulate us, against that sort of thing. So that's why they packed so - so fully and so meticulously, as I said.

MARTIN: And you talked about these encounters with the white police - which were really designed to humiliate?

KENNEDY: Sure, there was - there were certain episodes that I remember really, really clearly, and one - and this happened a couple of times. We would - we'd be a couple of hours into the journey. We might be in, you know, Virginia. We might be as far south as, you know, North Carolina. And a policeman would pull my father over. And he wouldn't give him a ticket or anything. My father would say, you know, officer have I done anything wrong? The officer would - the times I remember, the officer would say, well, we don't know yet. And the officer would proceed to ask my father some questions. And then he would say, I noticed you're driving a really nice car, and I notice that your license plate is a Washington, D.C. license plate. You know, we do things differently down here. You do know that? And my father would say, yes, I know that. And then, I recall the officer would say again, you do know that? And at that point, my father would say, yessuh, I know that - clearly, showing that he knew the etiquette of the Jim Crow South. And when the officer was satisfied with that showing, he'd let us go.

MARTIN: Humiliating.

KENNEDY: Yeah, of course.

MARTIN: Put you in your place.

KENNEDY: It was purposeful. Again, the officer was not - he wasn't, himself, snarling at my father. I got the sense that, you know, it might very well be that he thought that he was doing my father a favor - you know, that he was sort of saying, hey listen, you know, mind your manners. Mind your place down here 'cause we don't mess around with respect to the race line.

MARTIN: Well, the whole question of what the place was is the issue here, right? I mean, you talk about the importance of the Civil Rights Act and what it did. I'' start you off. You say in the piece, in practice, of course, separate but equal perpetuated an oppressive and humiliating reality, to express the judgment that African-Americans were inferior and that white people needed to be protected from their contaminating presence. Black people were consigned to the back of the bus, directed to use distinct drinking fountains and telephone booths, excluded altogether from white schools and hospitals, permitted to visit zoos and museums only on certain days, and, you know, it goes on and goes on. What did - and you know that was the lived experience, right, of people at that time. So what was the effect of the act? What did it do?

KENNEDY: Well, first of all, the act had several parts to. The part that we're talking about is Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And that's the title that provides that places of public accommodation cannot engage in racial discrimination. So, what are we talking about? We're talking about motels. We're talking about hotels. We're talking about restaurants. And again, before 1964, it was perfectly lawful for, you know, a hotel owner to put a big sign out in front of the hotel - whites only - or to put a sign out in front of the restaurant, you know - blacks go around back. That was perfectly lawful.

MARTIN: You make the case pretty insistently that this - the value of this, the importance of this law has kind of been lost over the years. And I'm curious, like, why you - first of all, why do you think that? And why do you think that is 'cause - because this exact - this is the kind of thing that, kids' books, for example, focus on because it's -for kids, it's intuitively kind of ridiculous that you couldn't go to school together - like, you know, you say to kids your friend Pete is white, and you're black, so you couldn't go to school together. And people were like, what? That's ridiculous. But - so why do you think, a - that you say, it's been kind of diminished and its importance? And why do you think it's been diminished in importance?

KENNEDY: Well, it's been diminished in importance for the same reason that, you know, we often diminish other achievements in our past. We take it for granted. I mean, you know, people - millions of Americans do not remember the signage that used to litter the Jim Crow South you know - Negro, white - or my favorite, Negro women, white ladies. You saw this all the time. And this signage - these symbols of inferiority and superiority were all around you. And everybody knew what it meant. White people were superior. Black people were inferior. That was the social meaning of all of this.

MARTIN: You know, the other thing you say in the piece, is that we should, quote "recognize echos of the fights from 1964 in current disputes." Could you tell us a little bit more about what you're talking about here?

KENNEDY: Sure. I mean, you know, in 1964, it was still the case that there were some politicians who would be just engaged in straight race baiting. But even by 1964, racism had been sufficiently stigmatized, such that segregationists were already using a different way of defending their racist position. They were talking about a tyrannical, intrusive federal government. You hear that a little bit now a days, don't you? They were already talking about intrusions on private property. They were already singing the tune of a certain sort of libertarian argument. Now, of course, Jim Crow segregation was, itself, dictatorial - was, itself, a racist tyranny, but there were people who said no. You know, libertarianism requires people to be able to do with their property what they will. So in these ways, in the debates that we're having, the debates we have over so-called Obama Care and debates that we have now - even now - over the wisdom of discrimination laws. You can hear echoes of what was going on in 1964.

MARTIN: You know, you don't talk - I want to push a little bit more in this whole question of why you think this is unsung - why you think it might be that something that so changed the day-to-day lives of people is not more, you know, celebrated?

KENNEDY: Well, you know, when people - when a victory is won, sometimes, you just forget - you forget about it and don't appreciate it enough. And I think this is what's happened with Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So nowadays, for instance, you hear people - I certainly hear my students. When I teach this material, there will be students who will say, what's the big deal about title II? I mean, you know, what's the big deal about getting a Coca-Cola or a hamburger? And you know, my response is, it was a real big deal. Why was it that people were willing to actually court death over these things? The reason why is because of the symbolism of it. Symbolism is very important. And you know, I'm writing a book about the civil rights revolution, and one of the central themes is going to be the importance of symbolism. Often times, you'll hear people say, you know, mere symbolism. Well, the civil rights revolution was largely about mere symbolism - things like a case called Hamilton versus Alabama. And this is a case in which a women's civil rights activist had been arrested for trespass, and she was on trial. And a prosecutor says to her, Mary, why were you arrested? And the woman says in response, my name is Mary Hamilton. The prosecutor says, Mary, why were you arrested? And she says, essentially, you called the other witnesses, the white witnesses, by their last names. My name is Mary Hamilton. The prosecutor says, Mary, why were you arrested? She says, my name is Mary Hamilton and unless I'm referred to by my correct name, I will not answer. At that point, the prosecutor turns to the judge and says, I want you to direct the witness to answer. The judge turns to Mary Hamilton and says, listen, if you don't answer, I'm going to hold you in criminal contempt of the court. She refuses to answer. She is immediately detained and sentenced to jail. She served her sentence. The case went to the Supreme Court of United States. The Supreme Court reversed her sentence. But, of course, by then, she had already served it. You know, it's a very - nobody pays much attention to this case. And you won't find this case in many books. But it seems, to me, that it's a perfect illustration of the point about symbolism and the lengths to which people were willing to go to be treated equally with their fellow citizens, regardless of race.

MARTIN: What is it that you would want us to be thinking about this summer as we think about all that was accomplished during Freedom Summer?

KENNEDY: There are a couple of things. Number one - this was not so long ago. We're not talking about a time when, you know, the dinosaur roamed. This was within the living history of many millions of Americans. So it wasn't so long ago that it was perfectly lawful for restaurant owners to engage in open racial discrimination. And so I guess, I want people, in a way, to take heart from that. We have come a long way, and I think that all Americans - all Americans - should be proud of that. At the same time, we should recognize that we still are in a society that bears the scars of our long racial history.

MARTIN: That was Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy. His piece in the June Harper's is "The Civil Rights Act's Unsung Victory." And he was kind enough to join us from Cambridge. Professor- Professor - using your proper title - Kennedy - thank you so much for speaking with us.

KENNEDY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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