In 1964, with a stroke of a pen, President Lyndon B. Johnson did what should have been done long before: He did the right thing.
After two months of debate, including filibusters by Southern senators, Johnson on July 2 signed the legislation — legislation that is viewed, 50 years later, as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement.
The bill, proposed by President John F. Kennedy, ended segregation in public places and banned discrimination in workplaces.
It may have seemed tiny, that stroke of a pen, but it was preceded by equal measures of hatred and heroism, the heroism a direct result of the hatred.
Men and women bled and died for the freedom that should have been a birthright.
Martin Luther King Jr., who would be assassinated four years later, led the fight, but he was joined by thousands of others throughout the nation, black and white, men and women, young and old.
"Through their passion, their speeches and their light, they helped create a climate that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., himself a key figure in the movement, said during a recent ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the bill. "They were my friends, my brothers and my sisters."
Slavery, along with the genocide of the American Indian, is our greatest sin as a nation, but the abuse and terror did not stop when Lincoln freed the slaves in 1865.
It continued with the beating and lynching of black Americans, sometimes by the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes by freelancing thugs, scoundrels with no association to terrorist groups. And it continued with segregation — in schools, on buses, even in churches, where God is colorblind.
We are a flawed country, but flawed countries recognize their imperfections, and they strive, sometimes against great odds, to correct the evil perpetrated on their own citizens.
Nothing can undo the horror of slavery — or the injustices that surfaced in its aftermath. But the Civil Rights Act built a significant fortress around minorities who had come to fear for their safety — and even their lives — thus assuring that some wrongs of the past would remain in the past.
The act did not end bigotry. Legislation cannot expel the cold, naked hatred within the hearts of some human beings. But it did provide protection for those Americans who had faced discrimination based on their race or color.
The battle is not over. Not when politicians continue to gerrymander districts to dilute minority voting. Not when courts continue to neuter the Voting Rights Act. Not when attempts to diversify universities and workplaces are seen as nothing more than quotas.
Make no mistake, however.
With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we took a hugely important step toward true freedom and equality. The bill made us a better nation.
Copyright San Antonio (Texas) Express-News. Distributed by the Associated Press.