Four years ago, the 50th anniversary of the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 was celebrated throughout the nation which included high profile television and print media coverage. It was supposed to change race relations in America but Blacks and civil rights leaders cautioned that despite progress, the fight for full justice and equity was far from over. That year, in Los Angeles, a standing room only crowd at the California African American Museum cheered then State Attorney General Kamala Harris’ keynote speech on the Civil Rights Act. Her speech 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 making that distinction. Civil rights are defined in legislation and state and federal law around specific issues that may or may not reach the level of basic human rights. The Civil Rights Act is fifty-four years old and despite some progress, leaves unresolved and often untouched, both civil and human rights violations in public education, housing, employment, law enforcement and a host of other related issues.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was considered revolutionary because it technically 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 and also addressed women’s rights. Other provisions of the Act include: public accommodations may not discriminate 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 Blacks and other so-called 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 skin.” Doubtless, Johnson’s statement was about human rights as well.
The Civil Rights Act was designed to change legal forms of segregation but essentially lumped human and civil rights together. Though they overlap, the differences are real, significant and should be treated as such.
President Barack Obama praised the Civil Rights Act but stressed that much more needed to 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 any 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 also be recognized and treated as such.) The term came into wider 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. These rights are conceived as universal, applying to all human beings everywhere and are fundamental, referring to essential or basic human needs. The UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is considered the current standard.
Human rights have been classified in terms of three generations. The first is civil and political rights associated with “enlightenment,” i.e., the British, American and French Revolutions. 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 coterminous with human rights because it is also a human rights act and progress, or lack of same, should be assessed in that context. Of course, progress itself is usually a matter of a person’s belief and/or perception and is generally gauged from their response to surveys, polls and research studies. For example, nearly 8 in 10 white Americans think there has been real progress since the 1960s in getting rid of racial discrimination. That’s no surprise. And whites (82%) are far more likely than Blacks (59%) to think race relations have improved significantly. Researchers and politicians often seem to forget that no other group besides African Americans suffered historical enslavement, then “integration”, i.e., into “American’ society” i.e., United States society. Writer Michael Muskal, in an LA Times Op-ed said, “Other ethnic groups including Irish, Italians, Jews and Latinos have come as immigrants to the United States, but none faced the holocaust of enslavement Blacks did, though all faced discrimination in many of the same areas.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 should also be considered fundamentally a human rights act, inclusive of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Treating it otherwise does a gross disservice to many groups, African Americans in particular, who have suffered most and longest the horrific harms of slavery, discrimination and segregation. It will take a sustainable cross-racial/ethnic commitment to transform the rhetoric of “one nation indivisible” into a political reality that benefits everyone, especially African Americans, who were and remain those most maligned and deserving of recompense.