Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, and some local people said the act has led to improvements, but issues remain.
According to a U.S. Department of Education media advisory, “The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. ... The law’s biggest impact came in promoting equality in voting, public accommodations, education and practically all federally funded programs and activities. An offshoot of the act was the creation in 1966 of the Office for Civil Rights, enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination in education.”
Pastor J.C. Richardson Jr., who recently completed a term on the Martinsville School Board, said, “I remember as a teen, poll taxes in Virginia, and other states had difficult (voting) regulations for minorities.”
“I think this (civil rights legislation) gave some equity to voter participation,” he said.
As a result, over the last 50 years there has been more minority voter participation and representation in government, including the election of President Barack Obama, Richardson said.
“Locally, it certainly opened up opportunities for blacks,” he said. He mentioned several African-Americans who were elected to Martinsville City Council and the Henry County Board of Supervisors over the years.
“I think we have to continue to look at all boards, commissions and committees that are appointed by city council and board of supervisors” to ensure appointees reflect the changing demographics of the community, Richardson said.
Curtis Millner Sr., member and former chairman of the Henry County School Board, said he was in Texas in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was signed.
“All of sudden in 1964, integration came to the Fort Hood area,” he said.
“Back here, I noticed quite a bit of change for good. It all seemed to have peaked in the mid-1980s locally,” he said.
When he returned to Henry County in 1983, two African-Americans served on the Henry County School Board and one served on the county board of supervisors, Millner said. “Currently I’m the only elected African-American in Henry County,” he added.
Another civil rights improvement was access to accommodations, he said. “Anyone and everyone can go anywhere they want to eat, purchase things and use motels and hotels. Prior to the Civil Rights Act, that was not so.”
“Perhaps there have been some (improvements) in education,” he said. For example, he added, “Colleges that didn’t allow African-Americans are allowing them.”
In public schools, he said, “we still have a racial achievement gap academically. We need to find a way to reach all the students.”
“I feel like the county and the city (school divisions) should come together and have an academic summit and come up with ways that can be improved. It’s both systems,” he said.
Martinsville City Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge said, “With civil rights comes civic responsibility.”
Some of the people who have benefited from gains in civil rights “have been lackadaisical if not lazy in civic involvement and governing ourselves,” she said.
“At the time I ran (for city council in 2012), no (other) African-American was willing to file to run,” she said.
Along with celebrating the achievements of the Civil Rights Act, people of her generation and younger generations need to ask themselves what they are doing to maintain and improve upon those achievements, she said.
New College Institute Executive Director William Wampler attended the funeral of his uncle, Sen. Howard Baker Jr., in Tennessee on Tuesday. Baker was eulogized for, among other things, his courage for being one of the first Southern U.S. senators to vote for civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
“I have reflected on what courage it took for President Johnson and legislators to pass a civil rights bill. They probably said it is past time to pass a civil rights bill. That was a legacy of President (John) Kennedy, who was not able to see it because of his assassination,” Wampler said.
“It’s all about what happens locally. Realizing laws are on the books, the question is ... Are we making an individual’s community a better place to live?” he said.
Patrick Henry Community College President Angeline Godwin said, generally, people’s access to community colleges has been broader because of the Civil Rights Act. “But for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, community colleges might not have exploded in this country and been an avenue for under-represented populations to higher education,” she said.
“We have made great strides. We have a long way to go until we have exhausted opportunities in any community, including ours,” Godwin said. “We encourage people every day to take advantage of what is here (resources).”
The Rev. Thurman Echols said, “The signing of the Civil Rights Act was very significant. ... It has opened up a lot of doors since that time. There is still a lot to achieve and accomplish.”
Echols is pastor of Moral Hill Baptist Church in Axton and was a student leader in Danville during the civil rights movement.
He said “there are those who would like to turn back” part of the civil rights legislation. He referred to the U.S. Supreme Court negating a key part of the Voting Rights Act.
He also cited racial tension in this country, “a lot of it directed at the president.”
Locally, he said, there needs to be more minority representation in local government and more minority educators in the public schools.