50 Years After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Are We Yet a Nation of Character?

Discrimination against African-Americans wasn't labeled as hate but, rather, fit into acceptable terminology, such as "separate but equal." Short of hate, call it what you may -- disregard, disrespect, diminishment -- discrimination was lack of character.
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Coach John Wooden once said, "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are." This distinction applies to the civil rights movement.

Prior to July 2, 1964, men of good reputation -- titans of business and leaders of states, counties and cities -- initiated and advanced discrimination, barring African-Americans from schools, buses, lunch counters, jobs, prosperity and the American Dream. This toxic environment was the antithesis of the American Dream and the values espoused in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Yet people of reputation -- laced with prejudice and self-interest -- perpetuated it.

But, fifty years ago, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson put an official end to discrimination. He signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, starting the civil rights advances and enforcement that have reinforced America's core values such as "equal protection under the law" and the concept that "all men are created equal." Prior to that date, the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution still allowed for interpretative wiggle room for people and businesses to discriminate against African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, women and others who didn't quite fit into the then-white boys club of American enterprise.

Discrimination against African-Americans wasn't labeled as hate but, rather, fit into acceptable terminology, such as "separate but equal." Short of hate, call it what you may -- disregard, disrespect, diminishment -- discrimination was lack of character.

Title VII, Section 703, of the Civil Rights Act, established that, "It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

As the culminating legislation to Dr. Martin Luther King's mantra that, "... people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," the Civil Rights Act enabled the government to clamp down on discrimination that defied both character and competence. When character and competence are allowed to rise to the top, access to equal opportunity, the hallmark of the American Dream, is the result. This is what America promises, and this is what we all should strive for.

Debra Lee, the CEO of Black Entertainment Television, in recognizing civil rights' pioneers with BET's major award, said that civil rights leaders and young people in their 20s shamed America to crafting the 1964 landmark legislation. These leaders held up the mirror of discrimination to show that what people saw was inconsistent with the vision of our national character.

But, since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination has continued, prompting additional legislation over and over again. Voting rights infringements prompted the Voting Rights Act. Equal pay violations sparked the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act mandating equal pay for women. Discrimination against people with disabilities necessitated the Americans With Disabilities Act. And the list goes on. In every major election, driven largely by political self-interest, equal access to voting -- especially among African-Americans -- continues to come under pressure.

What's ironic is that, as Alan Dershowitz described in his memoir Chutzpah, discrimination was often justified by using the "C" word -- character. People who were qualified to be hired had to be "of good character," a euphemism for "people who look and act just like us."

Although in the resistance to civil rights, the word "character" had been misused to exclude, it is precisely the lack of character -- how people have hurt, belittled or powered-down on other people -- that has shaped all of the violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other more recent civil rights additions. Ultimately, we self-corrected and continue doing so as part of the evolution of our democracy. We continue trying to refine our national character.

But, why don't we emphasize character more? Perhaps a consistent discussion of character and shared values, especially in education, would preempt continuing violations of our guiding principles? If character is so important, if the lack thereof has done so much damage, why isn't it part of education policy and dialogue in America?

The buzz word in education these days is "Common Core." Yet these common and essential elements of education are noticeably devoid of character. According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, "the standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life, regardless of where they live." These may teach how to achieve, but will they teach how not to discriminate or cause harm?

Ask corporate leaders about character and they will say that it's an essential barometer of success or failure that affects all of us. The financial meltdown of 2008-09 was first a character meltdown that caused the financial mayhem. Many of General Motors' recent recalls started with flawed decision-making that was profit-driven, not character-based. Corporate CEOs say that they hire on competence but fire on character.

We will continue in an endless cycle of discrimination and corrective legislation for all kinds of public dysfunction unless character and values become primary touch points for decision-making and instruction in American education, business, politics and media. Fifty years ago, we were responding to African-Americans. Now, we're responding to income and opportunity inequality. Next, we'll be dealing with immigrants. On and on.

Theodore Roosevelt cautioned us that, "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." In the history of our republic, we've seen many menaces, but we also have used great morals, which have come to the rescue. I know for sure that, without good character, America cannot be America.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love/ Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us

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