1964: A Year of Beginnings

FILE - In this July 2, 1964 file photo, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White Hou
FILE - In this July 2, 1964 file photo, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Standing from left, are Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill.; Rep. Clarence Brown, R-Ohio; Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn.; Rep. Charles Halleck, R-Ind.; Rep. William McCullough, R-Ohio; and Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin is hosting a civil rights summit this week, highlighted by a keynote address by President Barack Obama. The library is holding the three-day conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed into law by Johnson. (AP Photo, File)

The year 1964 was a year of beginnings. Fifty years ago on July 2, the nation began the most extraordinary cycle of human rights law-making since the Civil War -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, three great civil rights statutes in fewer than five years. That was the year, as well, when the residents of the nation's capital, whom I now represent in Congress, cast their first vote for president since the establishment of the United States in 1787. These beginnings for the nation will be measured by progress and setbacks since the 1964 Civil Rights Act and for the District of Columbia, by the continuation of "taxation without representation" considering that the city still has no voting representation on the House or Senate floor.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act responded to ten years of demonstrations in the South, barring discrimination in public accommodations, schools, and employment. The 1964 Act also removed the federal government from its deep complicity in discrimination by preventing federal money from being used to aid discrimination. The high point of the 1964 Act, however, was the first enforceable job discrimination law, Title VII. That year, I graduated law school, a third generation Washingtonian, and was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the thick of the civil rights movement. At the same time, my own city was without even the right to elect local officials or a Member of Congress. Who knew that little more than a dozen years later I would be administering and enforcing the job discrimination law I had been in the streets and in the South demanding.

I returned to the South last week for another 1964 commemoration, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, which attracted a thousand, mostly white students from throughout the country. They exposed the South's brutal violation of the rights of African Americans, and, as a consequence, three of the students -- Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner of New York, and James Chaney of Mississippi -- were killed. The seeds for passage of the Voting Rights Act the following year were sown.

By the end of that eventful 1964 summer, black and white Mississippians had formed themselves into a political force to challenge the segregated Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party began the process of democratizing our political parties and the conventions that choose the nation's nominees for President of the United States. As I returned to Mississippi this summer, black voters had saved Senator Thad Cochran's seat against a Tea Party Republican whose campaign had been lined with racial animosity.

Today, we celebrate President Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but the year 1964 itself deserves its own celebration. It was the year of beginnings not yet finished. It was the year when, using the rule of law, the nation began to solve its oldest domestic problem, to be continued.