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Celebrate The Civil Rights Revolution: The Struggle Continues

Celebrate The Civil Rights Revolution: The Struggle Continues

Robert García & Ariel Collins*

NYC People's Climate Justice March Central Park West

The People’s Climate Action March, New York City, 2014

2014 marked major milestones in the Civil Rights Revolution – and we’re just getting started! Civil Rights advocates are fighting to uphold the disparate impact standard of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act in the US Supreme Court in 2015, for example. The Civil Rights Movement is a paradigm for social change.

Opponents in the Inclusive Communities Project case in the Supreme Court are challenging the right to fight unfair and unjustified discriminatory impacts, even where there are less discriminatory alternatives, absent proof of intentional discrimination. The challenge to the disparate impact standard reflects a general attack on civil rights tools to combat discrimination. Disparate impact is a long standing safeguard for Civil Rights. Disparate impact is a legacy of the Civil Right Movement. Freedom from discrimination benefits everyone.

The Civil Rights Revolution is based on multiple strategies to promote human dignity, equal justice, and just democracy, and to overcome discrimination. The struggle continues today. Young people are moving the Movement forward from Ferguson to the Dreamers and beyond. Black lives matter – Latino lives matter, Asian American lives matter, White lives matter, each of our lives matters. Climate action will bring people together across movements and nations.

We celebrate the broad base and reach of the Movement. The Civil Rights Revolution includes attorneys taking cases to court, ground breaking judicial decisions, grass roots organizing, legislation by Congress, action by the President, implementation by administrative agencies, and people providing a mandate to support civil rights through the right to vote. The election of President Barack Obama was a major milestone in 2008. 2014 marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education and Hernandez v Texas, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the 20th anniversary of the President’s Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health, and recent victories and challenges.

1. Civil Rights Lawyers

While Brown v Board of Education in 1954 is often seen as the starting point of the modern Civil Rights Revolution, in fact civil rights attorneys and community organizers began the struggle for equal justice culminating in Brown and its progeny decades earlier.


In the first half of the twentieth century, beginning in the 1920s, African American and Mexican American parents and civil rights attorneys challenged racial segregation in schools across the United States, often working with civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and Alianza Hispano-Americana. Plaintiffs’ lawyers used social science research to contest segregation, a strategy pioneered in Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County (1946), which successfully challenged the segregation of Mexican American students in four Southern California school districts. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF) adopted and developed this approach in their school segregation cases, including Brown v Board of Education. While there were some connections across the campaigns, they were not consistent or sustained. Strategies aimed at promoting racial equality have to account for important intergroup differences for sustained coalition building to occur. Claiming whiteness also made the very real discrimination faced by Mexican Americans harder to clearly document and name compared to African Americans. Denying the role of race or ethnicity in shaping individuals’ life chances makes it no less powerful, but it does mean there are fewer legal and conceptual tools to foster substantive racial and ethnic equality. See Jeanne M. Powers, On Separate Paths: The Mexican American and African American Legal Campaigns against School Segregation, 121 American Journal of Education 29 (2014).

LDF won the case in Brown. LDF, the finest civil rights law firm of the 20th century, and served as the prototype for myriad other legal defense funds, including MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense Fund).

Attorneys continue to advance Civil Rights protections and to guard against roll backs as courts, Congress, and the country become increasingly conservative. The Civil Rights Movement is not over; it is alive and kicking.

2. Courageous Courts

Courageous judges epitomized by the Warren Court issued decisions upholding the rights of the people. Advocates continue seeking access to justice through the courts, including the US Supreme Court.

In Brown v. Board of Education the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in schools, signalling the end of legal apartheid in the U.S. The US Supreme Court also held in 1954 that the Equal Protection Clause protected against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, or descent in Hernandez v Texas, a legal effort led by LULAC and their lawyers.

Discrimination is not a black or white issue. This point is often ignored in this society, particularly in the mainstream media like the New York Times.


The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) team in Brown v Board

3. The Movement in the Streets

The Movement in the streets is what many people think of as the Civil Rights Movement, but it is only one part. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are well known examples. The Movement included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); James Farmer and the Council of Racial Equality (CORE); the songs of the Civil Rights Movement; and other work. Historic moments in the Movement in the streets include:

*   The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955
*   Sit-ins at lunch counters, 1960
*   Freedom Rides to desegregate buses, 1961
*   The Birmingham Children’s March and Church Bombing, 1963
*   The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963
*   Freedom Summer, 1964
*   The March from Selma to Montgomery, 1965
*   The Campaign against Poverty and for Economic Justice, 1968

Civil Rights attorneys play a role in organizing the Movement in the streets. LDF’s Jack Greenberg and Jim Nabrit, for example, developed the march route and logistics for the final march from Selma to Montgomery working with local activists. LDF represented the marchers with cooperating attorney Fred Gray at trial and in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals after the state of Alabama appealed the order permitting the march by federal district court Judge Frank Johnson.

The Movement expanded to include other organizing efforts that helped achieve social change, as discussed below under “Impact and Inspiration.”

Civil Rights Park Selma March

The Selma to Montgomery March, Photo Tile in The Civil Rights Park, Los Angeles 2014

4. Legislation in Congress and the States

The March on Washington led most directly to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act protects against discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in public accommodations (Title II), education (Title IV), employment (Title VII), and federally funded programs or activities (Title VI). “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination,” according to President John F. Kennedy in his message to Congress on Title VI. Senator Hubert Humphrey, the floor leader for the Act, said that we “do not have to be lawyers to understand, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’” Title VII of the 1964 Act protects against employment discrimination based on gender as well as race, color, or nation origin, and helped ignite the women’s movement. The Civil Rights Act is the result of decades of joyous struggle – and blood, sweat, tears, and lives.

The War on Poverty, which also turned 50 in 2014, is reflected in various laws. These laws include the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid, the Food Stamp Act of 1964, and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created the Job Corps and VISTA program.

Freedom Summer and the March on Selma led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Fair Housing Act passed in 1968 one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 reflects a renewed commitment by Congress to combat health discrimination by any health program or activity that receives federal funding, or is administered by a federal executive agency. Section 1557 of the Act references Title VI of the 1964 Act, and also protects against discrimination based on gender, disability, and age. The Act also includes over 60 provisions that address social determinants of health through wellness and prevention. Social determinants of health include where people live, learn, work, play, pray, and age. Where you live, the color of your skin, and how much money you make determine health more than individual habits and health care.

States have passed their own laws against discrimination. California’s Government Code 11135 parallels Title VI, for example.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others look on.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others look on. Photo by Cecil Stoughton of the White House Press Office.

5. The President

Lyndon Johnson helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. When one of his advisers told him that a president should not spend his time on lost causes like civil rights, President Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Johnson, a southern president, helped break the 57 day southern filibuster against the Act, the longest in Senate history. The president signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. The president told one of his aides, “The Democratic Party just lost the South for the rest of my lifetime and maybe yours.”

6. The Voice of the People

The 1964 election provided a mandate by the people to support the Civil Rights Revolution. The election reflected a rejection of the narrow interpretation of Constitutional protections by Barry Goldwater, according to law professor Bruce Ackerman in his book The Civil Rights Revolution (2014).

The people elected Barack Obama to be president in 2008. The Movement will have succeeded when the fact that a person of color is in the White House is not newsworthy.

7. Implementation and Administrative Agencies

The combined strategies of the Civil Rights Movement have been necessary to seek equal justice in and out of court. Administrative agencies as well as Civil Rights attorneys helped implement the Civil Rights laws and decisions by the courts.

For example, ten years after Brown, schools in the South had taken virtually no steps to desegregate. The federal government and civil rights attorneys then began using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, combined with federal funding for schools, to ensure compliance with nondiscrimination requirements by southern school districts. As a result, southern schools became the most integrated in the nation by 1972. The U.S. Office of Education developed objective, quantifiable measures to evaluate progress.

Similarly, the federal Hill Burton Act of 1944 provided more than $100 million per year in direct aid to states for discriminatory health services and facilities. A federal court of appeals struck down the “separate but equal” provision in 1963 in Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, applying the logic of Brown. The federal government then used Title VI combined with Medicare funding to ensure compliance with nondiscrimination requirements. As a result, health outcomes improved for both black and white people in the south.

The threat of defunding worked wonders for equal justice. Federal agencies should ensure compliance with Civil Rights laws by recipients of federal funding through the many avenues they have available in the planning, funding, administrative, and judicial processes. This includes data collection, analyses, and publication; planning; rules, regulations, and guidance documents; review of funding applications; contractual assurances of compliance by recipients; compulsory self-evaluations by recipients; compliance reviews after funding; investigation of administrative complaints; full and fair public participation in the compliance, complaint, and enforcement process; and denial or termination of funding. The United States Department of Justice can enforce Civil Rights requirements in court. State and local agencies should use similar tools to ensure compliance with federal and parallel state laws.

8. The President’s Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice and Health

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President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health in 1994. The Order requires each federal agency to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations. Environmental justice is the environmental arm of the Civil Rights Movement.

As part of the 20-year anniversary, Dr. Robert Bullard and the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University released Environmental Justice Timeline and Milestones, 1964-2014,” a report that chronicles environmental justice milestones, accomplishments and achievements of the Environmental Justice Movement in the United States in the 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of our environmental, health, employment, education, housing, transportation, and Civil Rights laws, according to Dr. Bullard.

In a historic moment, the President of the United States recognized that park access is a Civil Rights, health, and economic issue. “Too many children . . . especially children of color, don’t have access to parks where they can run free, breathe fresh air, experience nature and learn about their environment. This is an issue of social justice. Because it’s not enough to have this awesome natural wonder within your sight — you have to be able to access it.” President Barack Obama’s words ring true in communities across the nation. He was speaking of L.A. County when he dedicated the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in 2014. Park access is an issue of health and economic vitality, according to the White House. President Obama’s words and actions reflect Title VI and Executive Order 12898 in action.

Progressive environmentalists celebrate Civil Rights and wilderness: “The fiftieth anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act and Wilderness Act offer a chance to recognize how all Americans have benefited from and inherited the legacies of both movements, including the idea of unimpaired access for all. In looking back to their roots to see the intimate ties between race and place, we may become better equipped to look forward, aware of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship as interconnected cultural, historical, and ecological beings.” While some mainstream environmentalist organizations have made progress in diversifying staff, mainstream environmentalists and funders for the most part have yet to incorporate environmental justice as an integral part of their values and work. Mainstream environmentalists commonly receive federal funding, for example, but have no Title VI compliance plans in place. Environmental funders spent $10 billion between 2000 and 2009, but just 15% of those dollars benefited marginalized communities, and only 11% went to advancing social justice.

“Too many children in L.A.County, especially children of color, don’t have access to parks where they can run free, breathe fresh air, experience nature, and learn about their environment.” President Barack Obama San Gabriel National Monument Dedication

President Obama discusses green justice with The City Project’s Robert García at the San Gabriels dedication

9. Impact and Inspiration

Gavin Wright, an economic historian at Stanford, documents how the Civil Rights Revolution has improved outcomes in health, education, employment, and voting in the south. Prof. Gavin wrote the book Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (2013). Prof. Wright does highlight one setback. Black businesses in the South suffered after desegregation. When people were free to shop at black or white businesses, they disproportionately chose white businesses. “Black customers eschewed the stores and banks—and insurance companies and beach resorts—to which they had long been relegated, propelled by the conviction, as the popular phrase went, that “the white man’s ice is colder.” This is a form of gentrification and displacement that continues to manifest itself in many ways today. For example, mainstream environmental organizations often take over a campaign, funding, and credit, marginalizing the role of environmental justice communities and advocates.

The Civil Rights Movement inspired, influenced, or included the Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party, the Latino Civil Rights Movement including Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, American Indian Movement, Women’s Movement, Antiwar Movement, Free Speech Movement, LBGT Movement, health justice, abolition of the Death Penalty, constitutional criminal procedure, and other work.

The National Park Service celebrates the Civil Rights Movement through monuments dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Manzanar, and others.

Internationally, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez learned from Ghandhi’s teachings on Satyagraha and non-violence. The Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. in turn had an impact on the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Tianamen Square that same year, and the abolition of apartheid in South Africa in 1990 by Nelson Mandela and others. The Civil Rights Movement and the Human Rights Movement increasingly come together, as in Guatemala and Cuba. Climate justice is bringing people together across movements and nations. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.

La lucha continúa.

Transit to Trails San Gabriel Mountains


A new wave of research on the Civil Rights Movement, Brown, and Title VI is emerging.  See, for example, Gavin Wright, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (2013); Bruce Ackerman, The Civil Rights Revolution (2014); Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (2012); Clay Risen, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act (2014); Todd S. Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (2014); Jeanne M. Powers, On Separate Paths: The Mexican American and African American Legal Campaigns against School Segregation, 121 American Journal of Education 29 (2014). Earlier works on the Civil Righs Movement include, for example, Jack Greenberg, Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution (1994); Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (1975 and 2004); Taylor Branch, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013); J. Dittmer, The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Ccare (2009); D. B. Smith, Health Care Divided: Race and Healing a Nation (1999).

Robert García et al., Poverty & Race, New Frontiers for Title VI, Poverty & Race Research Action Council (July/Aug 2014)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Interview on Health and Civil Rights with Robert García, Public Health Law News (June 2014)

Michael Rodriguez, MD, MPH, & Robert García, First, Do No Harm: US Sexually Transmitted Disease Experiments in Guatemala, American Journal of Public Health (Dec 2013, Vol. 103, No. 12, pp. 2122-26)

Michael Rodriguez, MD, MPH; Marc Brenman; Marianne Engelman Lado, JD; and Robert García, JD, Using Civil Rights Tools to Address Health Disparities, The City Project Policy Report (2014)

Robert García & Michelle Kao, The San Gabriel Mountains: A National Monument for All, NRPA Parks & Recreation Magazine

Robert García, Green Justice KCET Celebrating Sixty Years Since Brown v Board of Education

Tom Rubin & Robert García, “A remarkable moment in American urban history:” 20th Anniversary MTA Transportation Justice Bus Rider’s Case, The City Project Blog

James Salzman et al., The Most Important Current Research Questions in Urban Ecosystem Services, 25 Duke Env’l L. Policy Forum — (forthcoming 2014).

Fair Housing Is a Bedrock Civil Rights Protection: The Supreme Court Must Preserve the Discriminatory Impact Standard, The City Project Blog

*Robert García is Founding Director and Counsel, The City Project, and Assistant Professor, Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. Ariel Collins is a Policy Analyst and Juanita Tate Social Justice Fellow at The City Project. Download this Policy Report.