The 50th anniversary of the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 was celebrated throughout the nation with high profile television and print media coverage. It supposedly changed the face of race relations in America but both leaders and pundits caution that despite progress, the fight for justice and equity is far from over. In Los Angeles, a standing room only crowd at the California African American Museum cheered State Attorney General Kamala Harris’ keynote speech on the Civil Rights Act that was part history, part patriotism and cautious optimism.
Today’s column addresses the similarities and differences between civil rights and human rights and stresses the importance of doing so. Civil rights are defined in legislation around specific issues that may, or may not, reach the level of basic human rights. The Civil Rights Act is fifty years old and despite progress, leaves unresolved, and often untouched, human rights violations in public education, housing, employment, law enforcement and the like.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was considered revolutionary, because it formally outlawed racial segregation and egregious forms of discrimination in the workplace, schools and public facilities. It contained separate requirements on certain race-based issues such as discriminatory voter registration requirements but also addressed women’s rights. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act include: Public accommodations may not discriminate against or segregate individuals based on race, ethnicity or gender; school systems may no longer segregate students; a ban on racial discrimination in employment and protection for minority voters.
In signing the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson said, “We believe that all men are created equal—yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain inalienable rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty—yet millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skins.” Without a doubt, Johnson’s statement was about human rights.
The Civil Rights Act was designed to change legal forms of segregation and essentially, lumped civil and human rights together. Though they overlap, the differences are really significant and should be treated as such.
(President Barack Obama praised the Civil Rights Act recently while acknowledging more must be done: “The Civil Rights Act brought us closer to making real the declaration (of human rights) at the heart of our founding—that we are all created equal, but that journey continues.”)
Human Rights: Human rights are rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human. (I argue that virtually all of the rights enumerated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are human rights as well and should be recognized and treated as such.) The term came into wide use after World War II, replacing the earlier phrase “natural rights.” Today, “human rights” refers to a wide variety of values reflecting the diversity of human circumstances and history. They are conceived as universal, applying to all human beings everywhere, and as fundamental, referring to essential or basic human needs. (The UN Declaration of Human of Human Rights (1948) is considered the current standard.)
Human rights have been classified in terms of three generations: The first—civil and political rights—associated with “enlightenment,” i.e., the English, American and French Revolution. The second generation is of economic, social and cultural rights associated with revolts against unregulated capitalism from the mid-19th century. The third is solidarity rights, associated with political and economic aspirations of (so-called) developing and newly decolonized countries after World War II.
The point is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can, and should, be viewed as fundamentally a human rights act, and progress, or lack of same, should be assessed in that context. Of course, progress itself is often a matter of perception and is often gauged from the response to surveys, polls and research studies, often depending on where the respondents stand. For example, nearly 8 in 10 Americans think there’s been real progress since the 1960s in getting rid of racial discrimination. But whites (82%) are far more likely than Blacks (59%) to think real progress has been made. Researchers and politicians often seem to forget that no other group besides African Americans went through the historical experience of slavery, then “integration” into American society. Writer Michael Muskal in a recent LA Times Op Ed: “Other ethnic groups including Irish, Italians, Jews and Latinos have come as immigrants to the United States, but none faced the kind of experience Blacks did though all faced discrimination in many of the same areas.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is fundamentally a human rights act, inclusive of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Treating it otherwise does a gross disservice to those groups, African Americans especially, who have suffered most and longest the horrific harms of racism, discrimination and segregation. It will take a sustainable cross-racial/ethnic collective commitment to transform the rhetoric of “one nation indivisible” into a reality that benefits, not hinders, those most maligned and are therefore, the most deserving.