The 49th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1968: The Ongoing Battle for Equality

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal” – in response to the Riots of 1967 and 1968, Kerner Commission (1968)

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The streets were ablaze from the Molotov’s that were thrown into houses, buildings, and stores. Rioters rampaged the streets looting whatever they could find and destroyed everything from windows to cars. The sound of sniper rounds exploded from rooftops like thunder, possibly signifying a life taken. The relentless conflagration quickly flourished, spreading from building to building, where one’s memories fueled the inferno. For days, chaos reaped these streets. After the flames subsided, and the riot had calmed, the damage reports of the riots of 1967 and 1968 were staggering. In Newark, New Jersey: 26 people dead, 750 injured, and over 1000 jailed. In Detroit, Michigan: 43 dead, 342 injured, and 1400 buildings burned. In Chicago, Illinois: 11 dead, 138 wounded, and 2150 people arrested. The rioters had not only demolished their own cities, for they had also destroyed all that they had.

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The riots had occurred because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had not yet engendered the pursuit of happiness for all. Although it promised to bring equal opportunities in voting, employment, federal aid, facilities, and education, it was not enough to address the relentless racism prevalent in the 1960s underlying in American institutions. The riots served as the violent consequence of that racial discrimination.

A large migration of hopeful African Americans to northern urban populations seeking better jobs were given morsels of dangerous, underpaying work. Unfortunately for them, the jobs had already relocated, for work in large industries like Chevrolet had transitioned to the suburbs as part of the “white exodus,” where white families sought suburbia. Opportunities, then, became disproportionate.

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The Kerner Commission of 1968, ordered by Lyndon B. Johnson, analyzed racial inequality within each city that rioted. Its detailed findings reported that 40 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line, and African Americans made 70 percent of what their white counterpart earned. The result was crime, drugs, prostitution, and ill-stricken ghettos that the police terrorized. The Chicago Tribune in a July 1968 article described some conditions of the ghetto, describing a dilapidated house as having, “ramshackle doorways where the broken stairs ascend into blackness and the smell of urine fills the air” (35). It was apparent that racial inequality emanated from the cities.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 should have addressed all areas of concern from the Kerner Commission. For example, “discriminatory administration of justice, inadequacy of federal programs,” “inadequate education,” “ineffectiveness of the political structure,” and “unemployment or underemployment” should have been resolved by the landmark bill and should have provided African Americans with equal opportunity. Nevertheless, the riots proved otherwise. The American institutions had failed them.

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The third highest grievance was inadequate housing. In order to have adequate housing, one needs good economic opportunities where there is employment, and the ghettos had little. With the opportunities moving away from the cities, the situation became hopeless. Worst of all, moving was not a solution.

Prejudicial housing was ubiquitous. The Kerner Commission states, “Within the cities, Negroes have been excluded from white residential areas through discriminatory practices” (11). As a result, areas of economic opportunity could reject minorities because the color of the skin.

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Lyndon B. Johnson heard their woes loud and clear. On April 11, 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, was passed. This act brought forth equal opportunity in the renting, buying, and selling of housing by race, religion, or nationality. Finally, racial discrimination in the housing market was abolished.

This landmark decision enriched America with another step closer to complete social and racial equity. The ability to move to another location freely is necessary in the pursuit of happiness, and it was granted. No longer were minorities trapped inside the city, but they were allowed the opportunity to seek a new life elsewhere. However, if anything was learned from the past, the battle for civil rights was far from over.

The Fair Housing Act eliminated discrimination for housing by race, religion, or nationality, but it was flawed. Six years later in 1974, discrimination by sex was abolished. Twelve years later in 1988, prejudice against persons with disabilities and by familial status eradicated. The next step is to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Although many states already enforce the Fair Housing Act to include these peoples, the federal constitution has yet to recognize them officially in word by law.

For the 49th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, it is obligatory that we continue to move forward for social gains that have yet to be made, just as the Fair Housing Act has been amended. The people of America should not have to wait until they burn their own cities down in frustration. That is why we must address these concerns swiftly and openly. Racism is still within our American institutions, and there must be another civil rights act that continues to address today’s social issues. Although the American system is improving, it must continue to grow like the Fair Housing Act. One woe, the highest of grievances from the Kerner Commission of the 60s that still haunts today’s institutions, is police misconduct.

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As the hand of the law, the police symbolizes the very ideals of America and its democracy. If one cannot trust the law enforcement, one cannot trust those who it represents. The American government must write a new law directed at this grievance.

Sidney Fine’s Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967 explains the reason behind the horrendous police-community relationships in the rioting cities of the 1960s. A total of 79 percent were either “extremely anti-negro” or “prejudiced,” (69) with former police commissioner George Edwards going as far to say that 90 percent of the force was “bigoted” (97). It did not help that police officers “reinforced their bigotry through their values and communication with older officers” (95). Racism was embedded and perpetuated in the police system. Sadly, this issue does not seem so foreign to us today.

Luckily for our modern society, there is less racism than in the 60s and the police force has grown diverse. However, as a 2015 Newsweek article reports that, “diverse departments don’t equate to improved relations between cops and communities of color.” As contemporary society becomes more inclusive, police-community relations, especially those including minorities, has hardly improved. Therefore, there must be another reason why this occurs. There must be another approach to combat police brutality.

One approach the people have been using to defend their rights is cell phone recordings. Now, everyone is armed with some sort of device to combat police misconduct. According to Fine, police brutality does more damage psychologically than physically. In the age of social media, we share the pain seen through screens, and together our trust in the system declines with the never-ending stories of police misconduct spreading like wildfire through the media.

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With the Black Lives Matter movement, it is ostensible that race still is involved in the recent police brutality. With the lost lives of Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, and the dozens of others who were mercilessly taken away from us, it is imperative that the American government take affirmative action in reducing the malpractice of the law, especially against minorities.

All these recorded instances has forced us to find a new remedy to combat excessive force by the police, one of which is Body-cameras. Body-cameras worn by the police seem to have an encouraging effect, with the University of Southern Florida reporting that “use-of-force incidents — also known as “response to resistance” incidents — dropped 53 percent among officers with the cameras. Civilian complaints against those officers also saw a 65 percent decline” (Huffington Post). This operation seems a natural step for police-community relations. With the public weaponized with phones to record misconduct, the police must also be armed with body-cameras to protect the public and themselves. Despite this promising cure, the United States has yet to take a nationwide affirmative step in ending this disease.

Protesters face off against a line of police during a demonstration outside LAPD headquarters, following the Monday grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in Los Angeles

We have already seen the events unfold when that frustration from the American justice system continues to be unanswered. A riot occurs. Cars are flipped. Stores are looted. Fires ash the city. The Ferguson Riots of 2014 remind us that these issues still pervade today’s society, but what came out of the civil unrest was the discovery of several violations of civil rights within the Ferguson police force. Additionally, Baltimore’s riots of 2015 uncovered analogous problems in the police system. According to the New York Times, after discovering “systematic racial bias in the police department,” the federal government and city has passed “police reforms, including training, new technology and community oversight.” The riots in these cities had reason, for they had exposed the perpetual racial discrimination in the policing system, and these new reforms bring hope to end prejudice.

New laws must be implemented, especially regarding policing, or there will continue to be civil unrest. From the protesters in Baltimore to the Black Lives Movement protesters blocking the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, these voices have persevered through their grievances. These people have already stormed the streets, and yet, there has been little federal action. Those riots were nowhere at the scale of the 1960s riots, but if their grievances are left unanswered, history will repeat itself with cities ablaze. With the American government openly recognizing police brutality for 49 years, or even more, it is time that they respond to the grievances of the people. How much longer must we wait for change? How many more lives must be lost?

The first act for equal rights was the Civil Rights Act of 1868, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Civil Rights Act of 1968 finally came 100 years after the first. It is clear that we have not yet created a perfect union, nor democracy, and it is imperative that we continue to work for it, so that all Americans are secured the inalienable right of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The protests, the riots, and the voices have been heard. Americans should not have to wait another 100 years for change.

 

 

Works Cited

Bekiempis, Victoria. “The New Racial Makeup of U.S. Police Departments,” Newsweek, 14 May, 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/racial-makeup-police-departments-331130. Accessed April 7, 2017.

Fine, Sidney. Violence in the Model City : The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967. East Lansing, US: Michigan State University Press, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 April 2017.

“Friedersdorf, Conor. “Fergusons Conspiracy Against Black Citizens.” The Atlantic, 5 March, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/03/ferguson-as-a-criminal-conspiracy-against-its-black-residents-michael-brown-department-of-justice-report/386887. Accessed April 7, 2017

Hamilton, Matt. “Protesters with Black Lives Matter Shut Down 405 Freeway in Inglewood.” Los Angeles Times. 10 July 2016. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-protest-inglewood-20160710-snap-story.html Accessed 8 April 2017

Solomon, Nancy. “40 Years On, Newark Re-Examines Painful Riot Past.” NPR. 14 July 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11966375. Accessed 8 April, 2011.

“The Riot.” Chicago Tribune. 28 July 1968. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1968/07/28/page/214/article/the-riot. Accessed 7 April 11, 2017

“The 12th Street Riot.” History. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-12th-street-riot. Accessed 8 April 2017.

“West Madison Street, 1968.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/6354.html. Accessed 8 April 2011.

Wing, Nick. “Study Shows Less Violence, Fewer Complaints When Cops Wear Body Cameras.” Huffington Post, October 13, 2015. Web. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/police-body-camera-study_us_561d2ea1e4b028dd7ea53a56. Accessed 7 April, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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