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Published: Friday, 7/2/2004

40 years ago, pen stroke snapped segregation

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As a child, Wilma Brown said she remembers hearing about the bombing of an African-American neighbor's home in Birmingham, Ala.

She remembers walking outside the city jail there and hearing the screams of men being beaten inside the building.

"We would hear the men screaming from three blocks away and we all knew what was happening," said Ms. Brown, now 68.

Life in the South for African-Americans in the 1960s was a constant struggle. "We had three seats on the bus. If we didn't get those, we had to stand," she said. "People accepted it because we didn't know what it was like in Toledo or Detroit."

At 14, Ms. Brown's family moved to Toledo, where she later became president of the Toledo Public Schools board and is now a city councilman.

Ms. Brown credited the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with breaking the back of legalized segregation and giving African-Americans and other minorities a legal remedy for discrimination in the public and private sectors.

Forty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law after the legislation survived an 80-day filibuster, the longest in U.S. history. The act arguably did more to change the face of the nation than any other bill.

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The act bars discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. It was the law that brought a final blow to segregated facilities for

whites and African-Americans in the South, and the end of discrimination of private establishments across the country.

In Washington yesterday, President Bush celebrated "a great anniversary of justice and equality," reaching out to a predominantly black audience four months before the presidential election.

"Forty years ago in many parts of America offensive laws regulated every detail of society: where you could get your hair cut, which hospital ward you could be were treated in, which park or library you could visit," Mr. Bush said.

"Forty years ago this week, that system of indignity and injustice was ended by the Civil Rights Act signed into law in this very room. All discrimination did not end that day. But from that day forward, America has been a better and a fairer country," the President said.

To appreciate the Civil Rights Act, Abdul Alkalimat, director of the University of Toledo's Africana Studies program, said one has to put the law in context with the time in which it was passed.

"The world was watching the United States," Mr. Alkalimat said. "Malcolm X just made his 'The Ballot or the Bullet' speech in the spring. The Civil Rights movement defined [African-Americans] by Sunday morning. Blacks were on track morally and politically."

Paul Finkelman, a professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law, said even after 40 years, America is still in the early stages of change from legal discrimination that began in the 1600s. He said U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Brown vs. Board of Education, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and the Civil Rights Act were merely first steps to racial healing.

"You don't change 300 years of history overnight," Mr. Finkelman said. "The Civil Rights Act ended the old way we used to do things, but no one taught us about the new way to do things. We are still learning the new way to work and live together."

Mr. Finkelman described his experience in a recent trip to Birmingham and eating at Ollie's B-B-Que Restaurant. In the 1960s, the owners of the restaurant sued the federal government, claiming that federal law didn't prevent them from refusing service to black customers. The courts ruled in the government's favor shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act.

"You saw blacks and whites working together and eating together," Mr. Finkelman said of the restaurant today. "Other than me and probably the other law professor I ate with, no one probably knew that something important happened here. We've forgotten how dramatic that time was."

Victor Goode, an attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality and the Toledo NAACP branch, said the Civil Rights Act is used often today to address issues locally. He pointed to TPS' development of a districtwide racial harassment policy several years ago and the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department and the Neighborhood Health Association steps to make programs accessible to patients who don't speak English as decisions routinely made in the decades since the Civil Rights Act's implementation.

"It's a living, breathing tool for justice," Mr. Goode said. "Just in the last five to six years, thousands around [the Toledo area] either have benefited or can benefit from the enforcement of Title VI. That's the part of the Civil Rights Act requiring entities that receive federal financial assistance not to discriminate in their services."

While the Civil Rights Act has made profound changes legally, Rev. Robert Culp, pastor of First Church of God in Toledo, said that Americans are "still learning to live with each other and how to treat each other" culturally. A longtime civil rights activist, he said there must be a vigilance to move forward on things that will bring racial harmony.

"What we can't legislate is attitudes," Mr. Culp said. "The nation would have to lose its soul to divert back to [past racial discrimination]."

The Blade's Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Contact Clyde Hughes at:

chughes@theblade.com

or 419-724-6095.



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