Maggie Gram at n+1:
THIS JULY MARKS the fiftieth birthday of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It is one of the most important pieces of legislation that Congress has ever passed; it made racial discrimination illegal in many of the walks of public life where it had been legally permissible before. Ten years before the Civil Rights Act became law, the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Educationhad taken America by surprise, generating a set of iconic images1 that are still stamped in our national historical memory. But a decade afterBrown, only two percent of southern African American children were attending integrated schools.2 Brown’s imagery stuck in the mind’s eye, but it was the Civil Rights Act that remade the country.
Other laws, of course, have also helped shape the country. But the Civil Rights Act is different in one major way: for many Americans born since its passage, it is very difficult to imagine political and social life without it. Imagine the United States losing the Civil Rights Act’s bans on employment discrimination or on the segregation of public places. Imagine us giving up its tools for the integration of schools and other public facilities. For a lot of people, it’s nearly unthinkable.