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Opinion: America’s Promise is Possible

“Our Civil Rights legacy should be that we ensured equality through policies and laws that outlawed discrimination, period,” says prof, former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin.

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LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Serial Number: 276-10-WH64 Date: 07/02/1964 Credit: LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton. 

“What the people want is very simple an America as good as its promise,” said U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the first southern African-American female elected to the United States House of Representatives and an LBJ School faculty member from 1979-1996.

As The University of Texas at Austin prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through its Civil Rights Summit, it has prompted some reflection on how important that time was in our country’s history.

Shirley Franklin

“As a young woman I thought by the 21st Century the hard work of ensuring social and economic justice for all Americans would be done.” 

In 1964, I was studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C. but the vivid memory of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was still crisp and I marveled at the courage of college students in the South who were challenging the status quo of Jim Crow. And that summer a few days before the 4th of July, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

Here was President Johnson standing in the shadow of one the most revered and beloved presidents of our time, during one of the most racially tumultuous and violent periods in recent history. But Johnson didn’t waste any time, making clear his responsibility to exercise his oath to fulfill the promise of America. He said, “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”  He was an unlikely champion in the eyes of some, but his love of his country and his compassion for those in need made him uniquely qualified to lead the change in the halls of Congress.

The many civil rights landmark victories that helped to advance equal opportunity in education, housing, voting rights, public accommodations and numerous other public programs were monumental. No doubt the inherent promise of the Civil Rights Act was to reframe public policy that was fair and just. Social and economic justice was merely a dream for many. Most of us didn’t understand how fast change would comeor how long it would take to be fully realized. As a young woman I thought by the 21st Century the hard work of ensuring social and economic justice for all Americans would be done.

Celebrating the Johnson legacy calls us to celebrate the hundreds of named and unnamed freedom workers, marchers and civil rights supporters whose faith in our democracy called them to act. Those change agents bequeath to us a legacy worthy of their courage and vision. From this bold and courageous legacy, we can draw inspiration to be agents of change ourselves. Fifty years is long enough to get used to the law, long enough to embrace change and long enough to realize the promise of today’s America.

Fifty years from now, our Civil Rights legacy should be that we ensured equality through policies and laws that outlawed discrimination, period. No caveats, no loopholes, no veiled attempts. Our actions should be as bold as those before us.

Every child can learn and deserves a fair chance at education, every child should be safe from harm, every immigrant should have a path to citizenship, every family should have access to good healthcare, every man or woman should have the right to inherit love and marry, and income equality should be possible, the air and water should be clean, the earth should be honored and that America’s promise is possible.

Shirley Franklin served as mayor of the City of Atlanta from 2002 to 2010.  Upon her election, she became the first African-American woman elected mayor of any major Southern city. She joined the LBJ School of Public Affairs as the Barbara Jordan Visiting Professor of Ethics and Political Values in 2013.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The University of Texas at Austin, in recognition of the Civil Rights Summit — honoring the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act — held at the LBJ Presidential Library April 8-10. 

[UT home page banner image: Civil rights leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Via the National Archives.]