Los Angeles, Ca — Attorney General Kamala D. Harris commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at a celebration at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. The event featured a diverse group of civil rights leaders who discussed the significance of the Act and the challenges we still face today.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law 50 years ago today by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964.
“The Civil Rights Act is a living, breathing document that makes clear there are certain fundamental rights. It makes clear that there shall be equal access to education; equal access to the workplace; equal access to public accommodation; and equal access to the ballot box,” Attorney General Harris said at the commemoration. “Today, fifty years later, in the spirit of the great civil rights leaders, let us rededicate ourselves to making real the promises of the Civil Rights Act.”
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris
Remarks Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act
As prepared for delivery:
Mr. Rollins, thank you for that incredible introduction. And thank all of you for taking this time out of your busy lives and schedules. We have so many leaders in this room, and through each of you, so many voices are present and being represented. I wanted to start by saying thank you all for the work you do individually and collectively, to be a voice for so many people. In that way you live the spirit and the intent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thank you all.
Elise Buik, thank you for United Way and all of the service that you do, and for cohosting this event for us today. It really means a lot to be here in this beautiful, wonderful place—the California African American Museum. Thank you for all the leadership you give. Many of you may know the California African American Museum was designed by two phenomenal California architects who were native Angelenos who also happened to be African American, Jack Haywood and Vince Proby. This museum was opened for the 1984 Olympics by then-mayor Tom Bradley.
We not only celebrate history in this moment in time, but we are literally seated in a very historical place, so thank you all.
I fully appreciate that I would not be standing here this afternoon, as your Attorney General, were it not for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I would not be standing here today if it were not for its precursor, from 1954, Brown v. Board of Education. I would not be standing here if there had not once been a California Attorney General who went on to become the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Earl Warren, who led the court in that unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the precursor to the Civil Rights Act. I wonder, standing here, whether Earl Warren, when he authored that great decision which led to such an incredible progeny, if he wondered or thought that one day his successor, 60 years later, might be the first woman and the first African American and the first South Asian to be Attorney General.
Many of you probably know my personal background. I am one of two daughters of parents who met when they were graduate students at University of California Berkeley in the 1960s. My parents met while they were both actively involved in the civil rights movement. My sister Maya and I joke often that we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent full time marching and shouting about this thing called justice. Truly among the many heroes of that great movement were the architects who were the lawyers of the civil rights movement: Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Constance Baker Motley. They understood the skill of this great profession of law and its ability to translate the passion on the streets to the courtrooms of our country. They understood the power of that movement taking place on the ground, and carried it through to the courts of our land, making clear and true the promise that we articulated in 1776: that we are all, and should be treated as equals. That was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In that way, we know—and you have heard from the incredible guests today, who honor us by being here—the Civil Rights Act is not only a moment in history that came about through incredible sacrifice, through the incredible leadership of so many people who lived in a way that was nothing short of courageous, many of whom died standing for this principle: that this is about ensuring that all people will have dignity as well as equality. The Civil Rights Act then is, as we know, not only something that was signed on July 2nd, 1964; it is today still a living, breathing document and it makes clear fundamental rights, certain fundamental truths. In particular, that there shall be equal access to all that allows us to live a life of dignity and productivity. There should specifically be equal access to education. Equal access to the workplace. Equal access to public accommodation. Equal access to the ballot box.
It was an act that was compelled, if not propelled, by the action of incredible human beings. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner and so many other countless names who gave up their lives to ensure that we could stand here today in celebration. In fact, one of those names is really not often spoken. It’s the name of an individual, a man by the name of Clair Engle, who in 1963 was a United States Senator from Bakersfield, California. In 1963, Senator Engle had suffered a brain trauma—he actually suffered a tumor—that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. But as the Civil Rights Act was making its way through Congress, he was determined to see it through. At that time, as you can imagine, the votes looked tight. It was incredibly controversial and contentious. Senator Clair Engle from Bakersfield, understanding that situation, demanded that he be taken to the chambers of the United St ates Senate by ambulance. He was then transported by a wheelchair into the chambers. When the vote was called, the Speaker said, “All those in favor, aye. All those opposed, nay.” Senator Clair Engle, on his wheelchair, unable to speak, from Bakersfield, pointed to his eye.
What he understood was there was an urgent need for change. In that way that it is a living, breathing document, its urgency is no less present today than it was then. What they knew then, Engle and all those folks, was the urgency was pretty clear. They knew that in the Jim Crow South, as Billie Holiday sang, strange fruit hung from those trees. They knew that the laws creating supposedly ‘separate but equal’ facilities created, in fact, second class citizenship. They knew that the ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Colored’ signs, designating who could use a fountain, who could go to a theater or a courthouse or school, were inherently unjust. They knew that African Americans had to pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test in order to exercise their right to vote. They knew that there were four little girls in Birmingham that had been killed by a bomb in church. They understood the urgency of the matter.
While these images and memories evoke the Deep South, as has been said here today, let’s not forget that California was a part of that history as well. Let’s not forget that in our state’s not so distant history, Chinese Californians were relegated to working in our mines, our railroads, our farms, and our laundries. Let’s not forget that they were subject to laws that were so discriminatory that they were forbidden from owning property. Let’s not forget that Chinese Americans, at that time and for quite some time, had been denied a pathway to citizenship.
In 1942, we know—and thank you Karen Korematsu—in 1942 in California, 110,000 Japanese Americans, Japanese Californians, farmers, children, teachers, veterans, were forced into internment camps. And interestingly enough, some 17,000 at that time were sent not far from here to the horse stables at the Santa Anita racetrack about 20 miles from here, just two years after Seabiscuit had just won his last race.
Let’s remember in the 1950s and before, California’s farm workers—and Dolores Huerta sends her regards, she had to travel to New Mexico today, otherwise she’d be here with us—California’s farmworkers, most of whom were immigrants, were denied collective bargaining rights and denied minimum wage. In fact, Dolores Huerta at that time left teaching to go and co-found the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. She said, “I quit because I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farmworkers than trying to teach their hungry children.”
And in the 1950s and 60s, African Americans in California, many of whom had come west after World War II, faced unemployment, substandard housing, and inadequate schools. Many white communities right here in Southern California fiercely resisted housing integration, often with threats of violence. African Americans in Los Angeles County at that time were unemployed at a rate two to three times that of whites, and 2/3s of the adults in African American and Latino communities were high school dropouts, and almost 14% had completed less than five years of school. We in California too share a dark history when it comes to many of these issues.
But in spite of these moments in our history, California has also had great moments of progress. We have been, in many ways at many points in history, a model for our country in promoting social justice and in the protection of fundamental rights.
Let’s look at our history in another way, on women’s rights. In 1911, nine years before the passage of the 19th amendment, California was one of the first states to grant women the right to vote. In 1969, four years before Roe v. Wade, the California Supreme Court protected a woman’s right to choose.
On equal access to education, in 1947—you have heard Sylvia Mendez’s story—in 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, the federal district court in California, in the case of those five families of little children, declared that separate was not equal right here in California.
On equal access to marriage, right here in Los Angeles in 1948, 19 years before Loving v. Virginia, California’s Supreme Court made us the first state to declare a state ban on interracial marriage unconstitutional after a Latino woman and an African American man were denied a marriage license under California law.
On equal access to public accommodations, in 1959, five years before the Civil Rights Act, California passed the Unruh Civil Rights Act, barring discrimination in public accommodations based on race, color, religion, ancestry, or national origin. So there is a lot to remember, some of which makes us ashamed and some of which makes us very proud.
When we think, then, about where we are, I can’t help but think of what Coretta Scott King said so well as a word of advice and as a word of encouragement. She said, “Freedom is never really won. We earn it with each and every generation.” I think when she said that she made a couple of points clear.
One: It is the nature of this fight for civil rights that it must be fought and won with each generation. These gains will never be permanent by their very nature.
Two: For that reason, in this great battle and fight for civil rights, let us never allow ourselves to become tired or overwhelmed. Let us never give up but instead remain vigilant, understanding the very nature of it all.
So I say to us here this afternoon, we are that generation that is being called upon right now in that ongoing fight for the ideals of our country, in that ongoing responsibility to recognize this living, breathing document, the Civil Rights Act. We are the generation that has the duty and the responsibility to keep it real in terms of its meaning and its purpose. So let’s look at, then, where we are and what are our challenges.
On education… In California public schools today, the average black and Latino student attends a school where 75% of his classmates are black or Latino. In California today, in our public schools, the average black or Latino student attends a school where 70% of her classmates are economically disadvantaged.
And race, sadly, seems to be a major factor in whether a child will even attend school every day. One CA study found that Latino elementary school students are chronically absent at four and a half times the rate of white students. In another study, one out of four African American kindergarteners were chronically absent at a rate of nearly five times higher than that of white students.
Our criminal justice policy… Latinos in California are twice as likely as whites to become homicide victims. And homicide is the leading cause of death for African American boys and young men aged 10-24. Let me say that again. The leading cause of death for African American boys and men aged 10-24 is homicide.
On access to economic opportunity… On average, white women make 78 cents on the dollar that white men make. And black women make 64 cents to that dollar and Latinas make 53 cents by comparison. So while we have a lot to be proud of, there is work to be done.
On marriage equality… While I am very proud to have presided over the historic marriage of Prop 8 plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandra Stier almost one year ago today, nationally, more than half the states in America still deny same-sex couples the full dignity and equality that they deserve.
And, on immigration, Congress has failed to act repeatedly while every 78 seconds a family is torn apart. By the way, you should also know that there was a study recently that documents that 44% of Latinos are hesitant to report being a victim of crime for fear that police will question them about their or their family’s immigration status.
And just today, the United States Supreme Court, in the Hobby Lobby case, rendered a decision restricting a woman’s access to quality and affordable and preventable reproductive health care, denying her the ability to make a choice about her own body and the health decisions that come with that. We have a lot of work to do.
And on all these decisions, I would suggest, that we might ask, where are we being true to those fundamental principles that talk about fairness and justice and dignity and equality and opportunity? The Civil Rights Act is indeed a living and breathing document that makes clear there are certain fundamental rights. And California has a long history of fighting to protect those rights. So today, 50 years later, we stand here all of us, united, as we rededicate ourselves to making real the promises of the Act.
On education, let’s talk about what that looks like. Let’s recognize that right now, elementary school truancy is one the of biggest issues we can actually solve when it comes to what is happening—or not happening—with poor children and children of color. Let’s talk about the child at the age of four who is on public assistance versus the child who enters school at age four from an affluent family. Do you know that the child who enters school from an affluent or educated family has heard 30 million more words than that child who is entering school on public assistance? Not 30 million different words, 30 million total words. It has hurt that much in terms of conversation. When we look at where we have to go today then, I would suggest that in California on the issue of education, we have to recommit ourselves as a community to taking a look at what is happening with our poor children and our children of color and understand that there are significant differences in the wa y they are experiencing, or not experiencing, education. And it is must be one of our greatest areas of focus, understanding that that was at the heart of Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On criminal justice… Let’s look those statistics that speak to the disproportionate nature of who will become a victim of crime, as an example. Let’s rededicate ourselves today along with our partners in law enforcement, like Charlie Beck, the great Police Chief of Los Angeles, who is here. I have been so fortunate to be partnering with him on the work they are doing right here in Los Angeles. Folks, I was invited to the White House to talk about the work they’re doing here. The work we’re doing right here in LA, called “Back on Track – LA,” focusing on public-private partnerships with our faith-based leaders, with our leaders in our educational systems, with our leaders in law enforcement, and throughout the community, the Chamber of Commerce, all coming together, focusing on young, first-time, low-level offenders, and bringing education and jobs to them so that we can shut that revolving door that invariably leads them back to the place that they are right now.
On economic opportunity, we must continue to do what we as a state have been doing and I give credit to Governor Jerry Brown. We have passed legislation increasing our minimum wage. We must continue to work towards those kinds of policies. And we must recognize also, on the issue of economic opportunity, one of those fundamental lines, there is no question—we all know it is true, when you lift up the status of women, in that dynamic, you lift up whole communities. We’ve got to narrow that wage gap.
And on immigration, you know it is not a state issue, it is a federal issue, but the reality is we’ve got to move this thing along. They need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. And in the interim I am proud to share with you that last week I issued a bulletin to all law enforcement in the state of California to emphasize the very, very simple point: As the top cop of the biggest state in the country, it is clear to me on the law that local law enforcement should not be used as a tool of ICE to patrol the streets as immigration enforcement.
To make decisions for what is best for public safety, in the spirit of Gonzalo Mendez, Fred Korematsu, Cesar Chavez, and in the spirit of Ed Roybal, Tom Bradley, Betty Hill, we have a collective duty to them and to each other, to take these issues on. And we also have a duty, I believe, to understand the tools the Civil Right Act built for us, and all that it promised and made clear in terms of everything that led to it and what it does for us more specifically.
It was the result of kneel-ins, of sit-ins, of boycotts, of voter registration drives. It is the product of activists and politicians and students and faith-based leaders and lawyers and farm workers and even a seamstress who just didn’t want to give up her seat on that bus. It was made possible, and this I cannot stress enough, it was made possible, I believe, because it created a coalition of people who supported it, who understood: there may seemingly be differences among us, but on these fundamental rights, there is no difference between us. And so, those of us here who work on education, or immigration, or women’s rights, or housing rights, or criminal justice reform, we are all in this together, those of us who are working on marriage equality, those of us focused on economic opportunity, we are all in this together.
The way that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came about, because you know it didn’t come easily, was folks walked out of rooms like this, seeing each other as not only being equal as human beings, but equal in purpose and equal in dedication to fundamental rights. My charge to everyone today, as we leave this moment, this anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, is to dedicate ourselves now more than ever to the coalition that we know is a winning coalition. Going forward we know we can do this. We know we can do this. There is more than binds us than keeps us apart. And so I say to everyone today, let us rededicate ourselves to the words and the principles and the spirit of that great civil rights moment and let’s walk out of here in collective purpose, marching on, leading on for equality, for dignity, and justice for all. Thank you.