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From Black and White to Color: Despite progress, obstacles remain on road to equal rights, scholars say

This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century: the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The law answered a question that had hung over American society since the Civil War amendments: Can people be treated as second-class citizens?

President Johnson signs 1964 Civil Rights Act
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Martin Luther King Jr. stands just behind Johnson.

Photo: LBJ Library and Museum

Finally the answer was clear: black Americans could not be denied a job or hotel room solely because of their race. More than that, the federal government would use its powers to ensure equal rights for all Americans.

For the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, the anniversary provides a special opportunity to generate new debate about the state of civil rights in today’s America. In March it will hold a major conference titled “Civil Rights: From Black and White to Color” to honor the courage of those who led the movement, assess the changes that have taken place over the past 40 years and renew a commitment to social justice in the 21st century.

The conference is being hosted by LBJ School Dean Edwin Dorn, along with a team of LBJ School students working in partnership with the LBJ Library and Museum. The impact of civil rights legislation is something Dorn can speak to first-hand.

As a freshman at The University of Texas in 1963-64, Dorn rode the wave of a historic series of events that brought civil rights to the forefront of American politics. In a nationally televised address in summer 1963, President John F. Kennedy appealed to the nation to move toward equal rights for all citizens. It was the first time an American president had made a public commitment to civil rights legislation. Around the same time, Martin Luther King Jr. mesmerized hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators with his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. That fall, the nation mourned the assassination of President Kennedy.

Dean Edwin Dorn
Edwin Dorn is dean of the university’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

To the relief of civil rights advocates, President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the fight for civil rights legislation and signed the Civil Rights Act the following summer. That sweeping legislation banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in employment, public education, voting, public accommodations and publicly assisted programs. It was a law that would change the course of the nation and the course of Dorn’s life.

Born in Crockett, Texas, and raised just outside Houston, Dorn was part of a small but growing group of young African Americans who braved an atmosphere of racial inequality for the sake of getting a quality college education. A promising scholar, he came to Austin to study government. Like many Americans in the 1960s, he saw government as the solution to a large number of social ills and social injustices. Dorn’s admission to the university came as the result of a series of federal initiatives that had begun in the previous decade.

“The university desegregated slowly and reluctantly,” he remembers. It took the 1950 Sweatt v. Painter Supreme Court decision to open up the law school and other graduate programs and years of continued political pressure to integrate its undergraduate programs.

Despite these gains, the university remained segregated on many levels. Dorn was among the first black students to move into semi-desegregated Brackenridge Hall, living in a section set aside for blacks. Participating in major sports was not an option—only white students were recruited to play on the football and basketball teams.

Heman Sweatt waits in line to register in 1950
Heman Sweatt waits in line to register at the university in 1950.

Photo: Center for American History

The situation was similar off campus. By the early 1960s most of the restaurants and other facilities near campus had begun to serve blacks, but the reception was uneven at best. Dorn recalls that he and other black students were always aware of the possibility of being turned away.

“That awareness,” he says, “was a source of constant, nagging uncertainty: ‘Will we be served here, or will we be turned away and insulted?’”

The proposed civil rights legislation was controversial, particularly in the South, and The University of Texas at Austin was not immune to the controversy. Throughout his freshman year, Dorn observed and participated in numerous debates on the bill. When President Johnson signed it into law the following summer, Dorn was jubilant and felt empowered.

But change was not sudden or dramatic.

“After the Civil Rights Act was passed, we knew that we had a right—a right, mind you—to eat wherever we wanted,” says Dorn. “Even when we were turned away, as we were occasionally, we knew that the law was on our side. That was a wonderful, liberating feeling.”

After graduating from the university in 1967, Dorn left Texas to pursue a career in academia and public service. He spent nearly 20 years working in Washington, D.C., rising to a position at the Pentagon as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. In 1997, at the end of his term at the Department of Defense, Dorn returned to The University of Texas at Austin to serve as the dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Dorn in 1967 as an Outstanding Student
Dorn as an Outstanding Student in the 1967 Cactus Yearbook.

Three decades had passed and Dorn says he was struck by how dramatically the campus had changed. The starting quarterback and the student body president were black. In addition to seeing increased numbers of black and Hispanic students, there were increased numbers of Asian American students and students in wheelchairs and with other kinds of physical disabilities.

Dorn attributes this transformation to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent federal policies such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Immigration Reform Act.

“If you want to see evidence of the influence of public policy on people’s lives, consider the fact that I’m sitting here as dean of a prominent academic institution,” he says. “That probably would not have happened if it weren’t for the 1964 Act.”

For Dorn, the 40th anniversary presented a unique opportunity to consider how America has changed, talk about the harsh realities of prejudice and inspire a recommitment to social justice. He is using the policy research project (PRP), the cornerstone of the LBJ School curriculum, as a vehicle to explore these issues. A year-long course, the PRP uses team research to examine a specific public policy problem.

The civil rights project conducted critical policy research on the history and current state of civil rights in America and incorporated its findings into the agenda for the March conference.

The project concluded that while much progress has been made over the past four decades the nation’s civil rights record is uneven. While overt discrimination has been outlawed, subtler forms of discrimination persist, and occasional instances of egregious racial injustice are reminders that work remains to be done.

One of the most insidious recent examples occurred in the small town of Tulia, Texas, where the uncorroborated testimony of one white undercover police officer led to the conviction and imprisonment of more than 30 innocent blacks in a 1999 drug sting. It would take a three-and-a-half year legal battle fueled by a national outcry before Governor Rick Perry would sign a bill into law that would free them.

Students demonstrate for desegregation in 1965
Students at The University of Texas at Austin demonstrate for desegregation in 1965.

Photo: Center for American History

“There’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that operates that way and that’s a legacy of a racist past,” says Dorn.

While Tulia is a glaring example of modern-day civil rights violations, a misconception exists that these kinds of incidents are the exception and that laws passed decades ago have removed the most obvious barriers to social equality. Take the case of public education. Many Americans assume that social equality in education was firmly established when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s.

The reality of the United States’ educational system could not be further from the truth, argues Chris Mahon, a member of the Civil Rights PRP. Because the majority of school financing is tied to local tax dollars, de facto segregation persists in many of the nation’s schools. Poor communities are stuck with under-funded schools, and because socio-economic boundaries run parallel to racial boundaries, minority students remain at a serious disadvantage.

“That some schools are given more money than others by virtue of the wealth of the surrounding neighborhood is an obvious violation of equal opportunity in our educational system,” says Mahon. “Unfortunately, to this day, the Court holds that as long as segregation is not enforced by the state, there is no problem. Until all public schools are funded equally across the country, the Civil Rights Act and equal opportunity will continue to exist only on paper.”

According to Dorn, the title of the symposium, “From Black and White to Color,” suggests an important social dynamic affecting civil rights: the changing nomenclature and meaning of racial distinctions.

Dorn leads the Civil Rights policy research project
Dorn leads the Civil Rights policy research project.

“For most of American history, most states’ laws required that people be assigned to a specific racial category,” he says. “One was either black, white, Indian or Asian. In recent decades, the number of categories has grown dramatically.”

Dorn notes that in recent censuses individuals who identified themselves as Asian could further define themselves as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Samoan and so on. On another census question, those who identified themselves as Hispanic were asked to be more specific—Puerto Rican, Cuban, Chicano.

“To some, the multiplication of racial categories is a way of recognizing—even celebrating—American diversity,” says Dorn. “To others, it reinforces unnecessary distinctions and fosters disunity.”

These and other issues will be debated during the three-day event. Veteran activists Diane Nash and Congressman John Lewis will be among the honorees. Speakers will include national news correspondents Dan Rather and Bill Moyers, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Rene Alexander Acosta, Texas State Senators Judith Zaffirini and Rodney Ellis, and James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute.

“There are two mistakes we can make about civil rights and race relations,” says Dorn. “One is to say nothing has changed, things are as bad as they always were. And the other extreme is to say everything’s terrific, we’ve solved all those problems, it’s time to move on. The reality falls somewhere in between.”

Megan Scarborough

Banner photo: LBJ Library and Museum, President Johnson in the Oval Office with
civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young and James Farmer.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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