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
Lyndon B. Johnson signs
the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Martin Luther King Jr. stands
just behind Johnson.
Photo: LBJ Library and
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.
Dorn is dean of the university’s LBJ School of Public
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.
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
“The university desegregated slowly and reluctantly,” he
remembers. It took the 1950 Sweatt v. Painter Supreme Court decision
up the law school and other graduate programs and years of continued
political pressure to integrate its undergraduate programs.
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.
Sweatt waits in line to register at the university in 1950.
Photo: Center for
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?’”
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
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
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
of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
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
kinds of physical disabilities.
Dorn attributes this transformation
to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent federal policies such
as the Americans with
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
probably would not have happened if it weren’t for the
For Dorn, the 40th anniversary presented a unique
opportunity to consider how America has changed, talk about the
of prejudice and inspire a recommitment to social justice. He
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.
at The University of Texas at Austin demonstrate for desegregation
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
While Tulia is a glaring example of modern-day civil rights
violations, a misconception exists that these kinds of incidents
exception and that laws passed decades ago have removed the most
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
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
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
equal opportunity will continue to exist only on paper.”
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.
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.”
notes that in recent censuses individuals who identified themselves
as Asian could further define themselves as Japanese,
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
celebrating—American diversity,” says Dorn. “To
others, it reinforces unnecessary distinctions and fosters disunity.”
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
to say everything’s terrific, we’ve solved all those
problems, it’s time to move on. The reality falls somewhere
Banner photo: LBJ
Library and Museum, President Johnson in the Oval Office
rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young and James