“But I have promises to keep And miles to go before I sleep”
— Robert Frost
Sen. Richard Russell called it a work of “manifold evils.”
Sen. Barry Goldwater called it a “threat to the very essence” of America.
Rep. Howard Smith called it a “monstrous instrument of oppression.”
It was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and its “oppression,” “threat” and “evil,” at least in the eyes of those conservative men, were that it outlawed racial discrimination in public places. The act was signed into law 50 years ago Wednesday by President Lyndon Johnson, and if it is not the single most consequential piece of legislation ever passed by Congress, it is certainly in the top tier. With the stroke of a pen — actually, the stroke of 72 ceremonial pens — Johnson exploded the old America and laid the cornerstone of the new.
Without the act, Barack Obama is no president, Neil deGrasse Tyson is no celebrity astrophysicist, Shonda Rhimes is no hit TV producer, Juan Williams is no Fox pundit and, not to put too fine a point on it, yours truly is no Miami Herald columnist. More to the point, in a nation without the act, somebody is legally required to enter McDonald’s through the back door today, somebody else must detour around a public park he is not allowed to walk through, somebody else has to decide if seeing “22 Jump Street” is worth the indignity of having to watch it from the back row of the theater.
We have come a long way in the last half century. That is our triumph. And also our challenge.
Imagine you and a companion were driving from Miami to Seattle. That journey from diametrically opposed corners of the lower 48 is over a 3,300-mile drive. It takes 52 hours, excluding rest stops. Now suppose you took a break roughly halfway through — Kansas City, let’s say — and your companion got out of the car, sat down with the air of somebody who doesn’t expect to move again and said with great satisfaction, “Boy, we sure have come a long way.”