This past Tuesday evening it was my pleasure to moderate a panel discussion with three distinguished scholars as part of a symposium on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sponsored by the McNair Center for Research and Service and the African American Faculty and Staff Coalition at Francis Marion University.
I shared the stage with Don Fowler, Ph.D., instructor of political science at the University of South Carolina and former executive director and chair of the Democratic National Committee; Teresa Nesbit Crosby, J.D., associate professor of political science at Furman University and former executive director of South Carolina Legal Services; and Jonathan Edwards, J.D., instructor of political science and general counsel at Francis Marion University. They were all quite knowledgeable and engaging and frankly I had the easy job. We could easily have kept talking for another hour, so rich is the subject of this landmark law and its profound and enduring effects on the whole country.
The panel was immediately followed by an excellent reception, then by a thougtful and inspiring talk by Mark Updegrove, executive director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. He used video and audio clips of President Johnson, in public addresses and private conversations, to illustrate various aspects of Johnson's vision of the presidency, leadership style, and passion for social justice--as well as some down-home humor and memorable metaphors. (I will never think about dead cats the same way, Mr. President!)
These days it's not uncommon to hear talk about how "nothing has changed" in American race relations. And it's understandable. We are still far from living in a country that is free of racial prejudice--both interpersonal and structural. But to say that nothing has changed is to forget how bad things once were. In important respects, the United States is a dramatically different place than it was when the Civil Rights Act was passed 50 years ago. And a century ago? We might as well be talking about a different planet. There is no time for resting on laurels, but it is right and proper to show gratitude for those who made the civil rights revolution happen and to say "Thank God!" that the Jim Crow regime--the system of legally-sanctioned disfranchisement, segregation, discrimination, and violence that blighted our country for a good three-quarters of a century before this law was passed--really is dead.
My appreciation to the McNair Center and the Coalition and to the large crowd of faculty and staff, students, and members of the community who came out for this good event!