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50 years after Civil Rights Act, struggle for equality lives on

By Charlene Pacenti   |   July 2, 2014 at 7:42 AM
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Fifty years after the United States banned discrimination with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the state of equality in America is hardly settled.

Barack Obama has been elected the nation's first black president. Some have declared that America has outgrown racism and that the protections set in motion by the seminal Civil Rights Act are no longer needed. Voting rights and affirmative action have been rolled back by the Supreme Court in the past year.

Yet America's gay and transgender community is still struggling for protection from discrimination -- and the right to marry. Many working women are still paid less than men.

Today the work that began under President John F. Kennedy continues to evolve.

"The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was, of course, an enormous milestone, a transformative turning point for America. It opened the door to inclusion and opportunity and activism in ways that continue to reverberate today," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Washington, D.C.-based Freedom to Marry, which is working to make same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

"It rededicated all of America to building a stronger, better, more inclusive society."

In addressing the Civil Rights Summit, an event held in April at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum to commemorate the law's July 2 anniversary, Obama acknowledged the legacy that brought him to the White House.

"Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody, not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos and Asians and Native Americans and gay Americans and Americans with a disability.

"They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that's why I'm standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy."

For those like U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who risked their lives for that legacy, attempts to diminish voting rights are an affront that proves the struggle lives on.

"It is clear that concerted efforts have been made to restrict the voting access of people of color," Lewis said in a June 20 statement marking the first anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision that federal approval for changes to voting laws in certain states with a history of racial discrimination is outdated and unconstitutional.

"We must never forget the blood that was shed by thousands so that we could vote without threat or fear today," said Lewis, who was among hundreds of protesters beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday 1965. "As we commemorate their courage and their sacrifice, we must also realize that our freedom is not free. The struggle for voting rights is not over. It still continues today."

Meanwhile, the tide of public opinion seems to be turning in favor of gay rights. Gay men and women are now allowed to openly serve in the military. And a poll taken in March revealed that more than half (59 percent) of all Americans now believe that homosexual couples have a constitutional right to marry.

More than 30 federal judges have agreed, and 19 states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage.

"It's time," Wolfson said. "America is ready for freedom to marry."

Some civil rights leaders from the 1960s, including Coretta Scott King, the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., have been criticized for linking gay rights to the earlier movement.

Many Americans still object to homosexuality on religious grounds and believe marriage should be defined as only between a man and a woman.

Congress has been slow to respond with legal protections, but the Obama administration has made several moves aimed at expanding benefits and erasing discrimination.

In June, the president signed an executive order banning federal contractors from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A bill that would do the same, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), has been languishing in Congress for years.

Many private employers have also adopted non-discrimination policies. According to the Human Rights Campaign, most Fortune 500 companies (91 percent) prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; more than a third (61 percent) prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, compared to just three in 2000; and the majority (62 percent) provide domestic partner health insurance benefits to their employees.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2012 that the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on gender identity or transgender status.

On June 20, the government extended many federal benefits to same-sex spouses.

Another legislative battle is being fought over gender equality in wages.

Fifty-one years after Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women are still paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to some studies.

The Obama administration has been trying to push the Paycheck Fairness Act through Congress, but in April, the bill fell six votes short of passage in the Senate. The president then signed an executive order forcing federal contractors to be more transparent about pay.

The nation also continues to grapple with affirmative action. In April, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan law banning the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has been outspoken about affirmative action's role in her admission to Princeton University, wrote a critical dissent on the ruling.

"For me, it was door opener that changed the course of my life," she told "60 Minutes." Her memoir, "My Beloved World," traces her hardworking journey from a poor childhood in the Bronx to the Supreme Court.

As for African Americans, for whom the Civil Rights Act ushered in the end of the Jim Crow South and started to erode decades of degradation, they have seen a lifetime of progress, according to Gallup.

Former President Jimmy Carter, also speaking at the Civil Rights Summit, said the nation is still falling short, with unemployment rolls higher in many black communities, where the quality of education is also lower.

"There's not any real equality between the two that exists in this country," he said.

"We accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary -- which is wonderful -- but we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it, and we don't have to do anything anymore. I think too many people are at ease with the existing disparity."

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