By Sheryll Cashin
WASHINGTON — THE Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment and federally funded activities like education, would not have passed without the support of House and Senate Republicans who were competing for black votes. And Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would not have advocated for the bill without being pressured to do so by a multiracial grass-roots movement.
The act became law on July 2, 1964. As we celebrate its 50th anniversary, we should pay close attention to the strange bedfellows behind its passage. Progressives today need to be just as overt at creating bipartisan, cross-racial coalitions that can win policy battles.
President Kennedy had been reluctant to press for a comprehensive civil rights bill. But when Bull Connor turned fire hoses and attack dogs on the children of Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and nearly a thousand nonviolent protests erupted in over a hundred Southern cities, suddenly doing nothing seemed more disastrous than alienating Southern Democrats. Kennedy began to work with moderate Republicans who wanted to give their party a pro-civil-rights slant.
Although the protests may have seemed spontaneous, they were a result of years of organizing by some 85 local affiliates of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This grass-roots mobilization was multiracial, from the integrated legion of Freedom Riders, to the young activists in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, to the more than 250,000 demonstrators in the March on Washington, a quarter of whom were white.
There are important lessons here for progressives. Today most civil rights advocates focus on racial disparities, comparing the struggles of blacks and Latinos to those of whites without acknowledging that plenty of whites are harmed by the same structural barriers. Many whites shut down in the face of these arguments, rationalizing that minorities themselves are to blame and resenting the fact that their own economic pain is not being acknowledged.
Only 42 percent of Americans live in a middle-class neighborhood, down from 65 percent in 1970, a trend that limits access to quality schools and jobs for struggling people of all races. As awful and racially disparate as mass incarceration is, incarceration rates for black men have decreased since 2000 while they have risen for white men. A focus solely on black-white disparities masks the overrepresentation of high school dropouts of all colors in our prisons.
Instead, a civil-rights discourse that focuses on common challenges and values is needed to bridge the gaps between whites and nonwhites that contribute to toxic, partisan gridlock.
The Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina is the perfect vehicle for social change in all 50 states.
People of all walks of life, ethnic, religious, and educational backgrounds have come together to achieve a common goal. They’ve come from other states to lend a hand. Since the early days of Moral Mondays, the movement has spread south. It now needs to spread north and west.
The success of such a spread of that movement could also be the catalyst for change at the federal level. When people are more involved locally, talking to each other, they tend to pay far more attention to their representatives in Washington. The progressives in Congress have taken a back seat to a majority of neo-liberals who are, at best, timid in their willingness to take the lead on civil rights issues. A grassroots effort, one that demands an equal voice for Progressives, is what is critical now.
At a time when the middle-class is shrinking and the economy isn’t growing, conditions are as ripe for coalition-building as they are for divisive rhetoric. What is missing is the initiative of Democratic leaders to work together with organizations to make the push for change and counter the GOP’s divide and conquer strategy.
The grassroots are there. The party organization is there. I hope it won’t take another electoral loss, like in 2010, for Democrats to finally get motivated.