Sign of the Times

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, the Columbia Law School community is marking the legislation's anniversary by hosting a yearlong, multidimensional series of celebrations and events. With 64@50, Law School faculty members and students are examining how far the nation has progressed on issues of civil rights, while also assessing strategies for addressing the challenges that remain.

By Amy Singer

Spring 2014

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Even before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, Jack Greenberg ’48 was mapping out the ways he would use the landmark legislation to help spur change. Within days of its passage, Greenberg had already filed his first lawsuit asserting a violation of the act—a case involving the refusal by Lester Maddox, the owner of Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta, to serve African-Americans. Less than three weeks later, on July 22, a federal court ordered the restaurant to stop refusing service to customers based on their race.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to barring discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin at public accommodations such as restaurants and hotels, also ushered in broad changes with respect to voting, education, and employment in the United States. Fifty years after its historic signing, the Civil Rights Act remains “probably the single biggest legislative commitment to promote anti-discrimination, equality, and inclusion,” says Professor Olatunde Johnson, who uses the act as a foundation text in her Legislation class. “It ushered in a sense of possibility.”

It also led to tangible results. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandated that federal funding be cut from institutions that discriminated against individuals, fostered more school integration in one year than had occurred in the 10 years following Brown v. Board of Education. Title VII, which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), provided new legal protections for women and forever changed the American workplace with its last-minute inclusion of the word “sex.”The act provided a powerful legal tool in the struggle for racial and economic justice—a struggle that has resulted in much progress, but one that still faces a wide range of challenges. Its details, its legacy, and its limitations are discussed often in Columbia Law School classrooms, and, throughout 2014, a series of Law School events organized under the title 64@50 offers an opportunity to examine the legislation in even greater detail. The 64@50 gatherings provide a chance to reflect on the act’s meaning, celebrate its accomplishments, and determine what advances must still be realized in order to fully achieve the law’s goals.

“We’re not just going to remember this as past and ancient history,” says Johnson. “These are statutes that we litigate and that we use every day. What we want for 64@50 is for the Columbia community to come together and understand the story of the creation of the act, to understand its legacy, and to understand its life today.”

That life has evolved over a half-century, and the anniversary of the act’s passage has offered a way to tie together a range of work being done at Columbia Law School on issues such as immigration, education, marriage equality, the environment, criminal justice, and economic equality. “Columbia is thinking about this in very new and forward-looking ways,” says Susan P. Sturm, the George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility and director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change. “Faculty and students in a wide range of fields are engaged in activities that are connected to the vision of a society that enables people to fulfill their dreams regardless of their race, gender, class, or where they live.” 


Given his central role in the fight for civil rights, it is fitting that the kickoff event for 64@50 highlighted the work of Jack Greenberg. “Crusading for Justice: A Symposium Honoring Jack Greenberg’s Contributions to Civil and Human Rights Law and Lawyering” brought together former colleagues and students who celebrated Greenberg’s legal battles, his teaching, and his ongoing commitment to human rights.

“Jack is an American icon,” says Professor Theodore M. Shaw ’79, a former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), who organized the symposium with Kendall Thomas, the Nash Professor of Law and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture. “If you look at the photographs of civil rights leaders meeting with President Johnson and advocating for the Civil Rights Act, there was Martin Luther King and Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins—the leadership of the civil rights brain trust—and there was Jack.”

Greenberg has argued 40 cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education and Griggs v. Duke Power Company, in which the Court held that written tests and other employer practices that screened out minorities were illegal when they were not job-related. He led the LDF for 23 years and has served as a professor at Columbia Law School for 37 years. Greenberg has also devoted much of his career to addressing human rights issues in the U.S. and abroad, most recently on behalf of the Roma, whose marginalization in Europe he has called “one of the gravest humanitarian and economic crises of our time.”

On matters at home or abroad, Greenberg possessed “a vision that allowed him to look beyond what was at issue in any particular case and to see a bigger picture,” says Shaw, who, at an annual dinner sponsored by the Law School’s Social Justice Initiatives, recently received the Distinguished Graduate of the Year Award for his ongoing dedication to public interest law. “Jack helped to change the country.” 

Change takes time, of course, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had yet to be interpreted by the courts when Greenberg first began using it in his litigation efforts. But from the moment of its passage, the act broke down barriers. In doing so, it laid the groundwork for landmark legislation and anti-discrimination efforts in other critical legal realms, including those involving voting rights, housing, disabilities, and sexual orientation. The EEOC, established under Title VII, has been especially effective in fleshing out and expanding workplace protections during the past 50 years.

“The agency has played a major role in developing the meaning of sex discrimination, from sexual harassment guidelines in 1980 to its acceptance of discrimination claims by transgender individuals starting in 2012,” says Suzanne B. Goldberg, the Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law. “At important times in its history, the EEOC has helped lead the way.”

As part of 64@50, the Law School’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, which Goldberg leads with Professor Katherine M. Franke, sponsored the symposium “Marriage Equality and Reproductive Rights: Lessons Learned and the Road Ahead.” The event brought together practitioners and students and featured a talk by Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the 2013 Supreme Court case that struck down critical sections of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“The point of the Civil Rights Act was to make clear that we should not tolerate discrimination based on characteristics that don’t affect a person’s ability to contribute to society, either at work or otherwise, and that’s essentially the same argument that is driving much marriage equality work today,” says Goldberg. “This is ongoing work to fulfill the promise of equality for all, of which the Civil Rights Act was a critically important piece.”

This past April, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) took the lead in organizing another 64@50 event—the Paul Robeson Conference, which, this year, focused on “Exploring the Role of Student and Lawyer Activism in the Creation of Transformative Policy.” In a discussion moderated by BLSA chair Jeffrey Skinner ’15, panelists detailed work being done on a range of issues, including zero-tolerance school discipline policies and the use of stop-and-frisk practices by police officers. As he did with the “Crusading for Justice” event, Thomas helped organize and plan the Robeson Conference. “I encouraged students to think about what the Civil Rights Act and its legacy means to them,” he says, “and to think about their connections to the students who were actively involved in the civil rights movement.”

Part of the act’s legacy is rooted in change that was never anticipated when Lyndon B. Johnson told the American people that the time had come “to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.” Title VI, for instance, which was meant to promote integration in schools by withholding federal funds from institutions that discriminate against individuals, has been used effectively in environmental cases against local agencies for issuing permits to industrial facilities that disproportionately impact minority populations. It has also been used to ensure that municipal transit authorities consult with, and consider the transportation needs of, minority populations.

“It shows the power, the potential, that’s there in legislation to take broad ideas such as equal protection and develop specific remedies,” says Olatunde Johnson.


Still, even considering the substantial progress attributable to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and despite achievements that were barely imaginable 50 years ago, including the election of America’s first black president, much of the full potential and promise of the act remains unfulfilled, says Kendall Thomas.

Thomas, who was 7 years old when the act was signed, recalls walking in picket lines with his mother in Oroville, Calif., to protest a local grocery store that employed no black workers. “The Civil Rights Act and the anti-discrimination principle that it announced were as much about economic justice as about racial justice, and I think that part of it is sometimes forgotten,” he says. In 2013, 50 years after the seminal 1963 March on Washington, he notes, black unemployment in the U.S. was 13.1 percent, up from 10.9 percent in 1963.

Thomas laments the gradual fading away of community-based mobilization efforts that followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act, as activists such as Bayard Rustin urged a move away from protests and toward politics. “The idea was that, through the exercise of these political and civil rights, we will gain economic equality,” he says. “And that has not happened.”

Thomas points to the continuation of deep divisions and inequities in several areas, including criminal punishment, immigration, and education. “Public education in this country is as segregated in some parts of the country as it was 60 years ago,” he says.

The persistence of segregation is something Theodore Shaw spent 23 years at the LDF working to eliminate. While on the faculty at the University of Michigan Law School, Shaw helped craft the admissions policy that was upheld by the Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger. He supports efforts to diversify educational institutions and is disappointed that the Court has moved away from supporting remedial-based affirmative action policies.

“I fought tooth and nail for diversity,” says Shaw. “But the original purpose for adopting these practices and policies was to address this legacy, which still remains with us.”

Shaw and others at the Law School are increasingly looking for ways to advance the civil rights agenda outside the courtroom arena. “The next chapter is to look at how a piece of legislation that focused on helping people get educated, have jobs, and vote can create new opportunities for collaborative work toward social justice goals,” says Susan Sturm.

That approach defines much of Sturm’s work with the Law School’s Center for Institutional and Social Change. The center promotes what Sturm calls “full participation” by bringing parties from multiple institutions together for collaborative problem solving. One of her current projects, called the Creating Connections Consortium, aims to foster diversity and full participation on the campuses of liberal arts colleges and research universities by building pathways for college undergraduates to progress to graduate school and onto liberal arts faculties. Another project seeks to revitalize communities affected by incarceration by making educational opportunities meaningful for those groups and their families. “The idea is to ask these deeper questions about what it takes to change our institutional cultures and practices so that they actually advance the vision behind the Civil Rights Act,” Sturm says.

Other nations are asking similar questions, and the ideals embodied in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are providing lessons that have led to progress around the world. The European Union, for example, has expanded its anti-discrimination laws, which, prior to 2000, only prohibited discrimination based on sex.

“One lasting value of the U.S. civil rights idea is evident in the way it’s been taken up in human rights struggles abroad,” says Thomas. “Lawyers and activists in other countries have used the American civil rights story as a model and metaphor to work for progressive legal and social change in very different national settings than our own.”

Of course, that story is still evolving, and the aspirations embodied in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have not been fully realized even in the fundamental areas that the act sought to address. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama highlighted the need to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, provide equal pay to women, and make education—from preschool to college—affordable and accessible to all.

So, without question, there remains much work to be done—on many fronts. The good news: There is much energy for doing it, and the next generation of civil rights advocates is working to expand on the progress of the past. “It’s amazing to me how many students see LGBT equality as their civil rights issue,” says Suzanne Goldberg. “I couldn’t have imagined that 20 years ago. At the same time, there are other forms of discrimination that persist and still more that society is only now starting to see more clearly. Columbia Law School students and alumni will surely be at the forefront of identifying and advocating on these new and still-unknown frontiers.” 

Amy Singer teaches at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for The New York Times.

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Illustration by Josh Cochran