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Pitts: Still only half-way there

  • FILE - In this July 2, 1964 file photo, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Standing from left, are Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill.; Rep. Clarence Brown, R-Ohio; Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn.; Rep. Charles Halleck, R-Ind.; Rep. William McCullough, R-Ohio; and Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin is hosting a civil rights summit this week, highlighted by a keynote address by President Barack Obama. The library is holding the three-day conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed into law by Johnson. (AP Photo, File)

<i>"But I have promises to keep And miles to go before I sleep"

— Robert Frost</i>

Sen. Richard Russell called it a work of "manifold evils."

Sen. Barry Goldwater called it a "threat to the very essence" of America.

Rep. Howard Smith called it a "monstrous instrument of oppression."

It was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and its "oppression," "threat" and "evil," at least in the eyes of those conservative men, were that it outlawed racial discrimination in public places. The act was signed into law 50 years ago Wednesday by President Lyndon Johnson, and if it is not the single most consequential piece of legislation ever passed by Congress, it is certainly in the top tier. With the stroke of a pen — actually, the stroke of 72 ceremonial pens — Johnson exploded the old America and laid the cornerstone of the new.

Without the act, Barack Obama is no president, Neil deGrasse Tyson is no celebrity astrophysicist, Shonda Rhimes is no hit TV producer, Juan Williams is no Fox pundit and, not to put too fine a point on it, yours truly is no Miami Herald columnist. More to the point, in a nation without the act, somebody is legally required to enter McDonald's through the back door today, somebody else must detour around a public park he is not allowed to walk through, somebody else has to decide if seeing "22 Jump Street" is worth the indignity of having to watch it from the back row of the theater.

We have come a long way in the last half century. That is our triumph. And also our challenge.

Imagine you and a companion were driving from Miami to Seattle. That journey from diametrically opposed corners of the lower 48 is over a 3,300-mile drive. It takes 52 hours, excluding rest stops. Now suppose you took a break roughly halfway through — Kansas City, let's say — and your companion got out of the car, sat down with the air of somebody who doesn't expect to move again and said with great satisfaction, "Boy, we sure have come a long way."

It's about 1,500 miles from Miami to Kansas City, so obviously she'd be right. But might you not be puzzled and perturbed by her sense of accomplishment? Might you not be inclined to point out that though you have, indeed, come a long way, you have a long way yet to go?


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