U.S. Civil Rights Act's victories at risk, say leaders on 60th anniversary

FILE PHOTO: Civil rights leaders talk with reporters after meeting with President John F. Kennedy after the March on Washington

By Bianca Flowers, Kat Stafford and Allende Miglietta

(Reuters) - Courtland Cox was 22 years old when he stood alongside civil rights icons Bayard Rustin and John Lewis at the March on Washington in 1963, joined by thousands of other Black Americans, including students Cox organized, who arrived on charter buses from the South.

The march is credited with shifting the tide for social rights in the United States, paving the way for the Civil Rights Act signed into law 60 years ago today.

Then, many Black Americans, who were generations removed from the end of slavery, nonetheless faced the threat of violence and "Jim Crow" laws that prohibited them from voting and from living in housing among their fellow citizens.

Activists in the 1950s and 1960s responded with an escalating series of nonviolent demonstrations, including the March on Washington led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The events drew public attention to Black citizens' plight and paved the way for landmark laws, including the Civil Rights Act, signed on July 2, 1964, by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Cox, now 83, said the fight is as urgent today as it was when he was a young activist. "We have an ongoing battle that's been going on for 80 years," Cox said.

Decades after the bill's passage, some of the nation's leading civil rights leaders and organizations say its full promise – and the hope it instilled – remains unrealized after a series of rollbacks in rights in recent years.

Advocates said a recent litany of court rulings have had a chilling effect on Black Americans, including U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the past 11 years that have gutted a core part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, overturned Roe v. Wade abortion rights and made it harder to prove racial discrimination in the administration of elections.

Voters are further frustrated by inflation and other pocketbook issues and a lack of progress on racial justice priorities.

"We are treading on very dangerous waters," said Martin Luther King III, son of the assassinated civil rights icon. "Our task is to get the majority of people to engage. Dad used to say, 'We must learn non-violence or we may face non-existence.' We are headed in the wrong direction and we have to find ways to pull those people out to come out on Election Day."

The Civil Rights Act anniversary may well be a cause for celebration but a feeling persists that the historic legislative victories for Black civil rights are under threat.

"The past eight years has taught us that all of the things that we thought were codified in law and sacred, and that they were part of this kind of historical narrative about justice - all of those things can be undone," said Leah Wright Rigueur, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Black Americans voted 9-to-1 for Biden in 2020. Black Americans have favored Democratic candidates in presidential elections since the civil rights era. But recent Black voter support for Biden has waned in part because some voters feel disillusioned about slow progress.

Advocates are hoping to use this moment to push Black Americans to fight for their rights by voting in the November election between Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican candidate Donald Trump.


Cox celebrates the substantial political influence Black Americans have gained since the era when he joined the civil rights movement.

At the age of 19, he was prompted to do so by Emmett Till's murder a few years prior. The 14-year-old Till was abducted and murdered in Mississippi by two white men, who were eventually acquitted.

He remains engaged in activism – currently collaborating with the NAACP civil rights group to recruit 300,000 volunteers in get-out-the-vote efforts targeted at Black communities.

The National Urban League, another leading civil rights organization, is fighting what it views as racially targeted voter suppression tactics such as strict voter ID laws, polling closures in predominantly Black neighborhoods, early voting limits and voter roll purges.

"We sometimes take democracy for granted because we never lived without it, so we become detached from this hard reality," said National Urban League CEO Marc Morial.

Meanwhile, the next generation of political leaders and advocates hope to use what they've learned from prior generations, like recent Tougaloo College graduate Blaise Adams. The Mississippi college was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, serving as a gathering place for noted activists like King, Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer.

"One of the biggest things that we've learned from that era is the power of the collective voice," said Adams, 34, Tougaloo's former student government president.

"Our ancestors fought for this right. People that were killed in the streets, attacked and everything like that, for the ability for us to simply go and vote."

(Reporting by Kat Stafford, Bianca Flowers and Allende Miglietta. Edited by Trevor Hunnicutt)