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April 22, 2014

President Obama honors 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act


At the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, four presidents and prominent civil rights advocates recently gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law.

The landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sex.

“Without the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson and involvement of hundreds and thousands and millions of people in the civil rights movement, there would be no President Jimmy Carter, no President Bill Clinton, no President Barack Obama,” said Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement.“Lyndon Johnson, using his skills and his power, made this possible. When people say nothing had changed, I say come and walk in my shoes, and I will show you change.”

Just getting the bill passed was a momentous struggle. President John F. Kennedy proposed it the summer before his assassination. It didn’t become law until the following year, in 1964, when Johnson and a bipartisan group of lawmakers overcame what turned into a two-month Senate filibuster led by Southern Democrats.

In his keynote address, President Barack Obama said the law affected everybody.

“Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody. They swung open for you, and they swung open for me,” he said. “That’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”

In the audience sat President Jimmy Carter, who grew up in Georgia, President Bill Clinton, who grew up in Arkansas, and President George W. Bush, who grew up in Texas.

“[President Johnson] knew that he had a unique capacity, as the most powerful white politician from the South, to not merely challenge the convention that had crushed the dreams of so many, but to ultimately dismantle for good the structures of legal segregation,” he continued. “He’s the only guy who could do it. And he knew there would be a cost, famously saying the Democratic Party may have lost the South for a generation.”

Warm up questions
  1. Why is it important that there are laws that make sure everyone is treated equally?
  2. Do you think people would behave the way they should if rules weren’t in place? Think about how school would be different if there were no rules.
  3. Can you think of a time in the history of the United States where laws were needed to make sure that everyone, regardless of their race, were treated equally?
Discussion questions
  1. How does having a law protecting people from discrimination change the daily lives of those who are often discriminated against? Can you think of examples?
  2. Why does there have to be a law against discrimination? Why can’t people just agree to treat each other equally?
  3. What was the impact of the Civil Rights Act on regular Americans of both races?
Writing prompts

Sometimes laws can make us feel restricted from doing what we would like. For example, maybe you’d like to drive but you are only 15. Other times having laws in place make us feel safe or feel protected. An example there might be that it is illegal to kill or steal from someone. The earliest known laws that were written down were from the Babylonians who produced Hammurabi’s Code nearly 4,000 years ago and were very strict. Cheating on your husband could get you thrown in the river to drown! Think of the five most important laws you know of from your own experience and defend why you think they are the most important. Then think of two laws that you feel actually hurt people more than help and again explain your reasoning behind your answer.

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