Thanksgiving Day has always been America’s benevolent benediction. It is a time to acknowledge the many blessings and the good fortune which come our way, as well as an opportunity to reflect on all the people and history which have helped shape our lives through good times and bad.
African Americans have certainly helped to shape the United States into a world power, but often when the discussion of Black history ensues it becomes more of a “laundry list” of famous Black persons in sports, entertainment, politics, etc.
The United States of America in 2015 owes a considerable debt of gratitude to its Black citizens. Whether they be famous or obscure, rich and “powerful” or working-class and “strong,” African Americans continue to offer a signature mark of courage, potency, and above all, faith that have become indelible trademarks of the fabric of America.
Building our seat of power
For about six months the dome at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., has been covered in scaffolding and is undergoing a multi-year refurbishment project. In 1793, slaves in what would become the District of Columbia helped to construct the neoclassical-style structure which serves as the seat of our national government. After it was burned down during the War of 1812, slaves rebuilt it during the Civil War (1863).
Black people are working on it again—this time with pay—which may serve as a salient point to remind everyone that African Americans have played a major role in helping to illuminate the strengths of the nation whether it be a limestone-and-marble edifice of democracy, or in the personal lives of the citizens it represents.
There is a considerable list of Black persons who have contributed to just about every facet of American life. However, not often considered are the constitutional and legislative actions that all of us live by which are the sole result of the African American struggle to overcome federally-sanctioned racial discrimination. Beginning with the 14th Amendment, many of the freedoms we hold dear today may not have been protected by law had it not been for African Americans.
The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times, but the 14th Amendment’s statement of: “No State shall make or enforce any laws which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens … nor deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny … equal protection of the laws” may be the most important link today with the Founders’ belief in “… life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
‘With charity for all’
The civil rights spelled out in this, the second of the “Reconstruction Amendments” ratified following the Civil War, are today guaranteed to all Americans. Skip ahead 100 years and we have witnessed many laws passed that guarantee civil rights to all Americans … not just for Blacks, but for women, Latinos, Asian Americans, people with disabilities, the gay community, the homeless and other minorities who for 50 years have waged their own civil rights campaigns.
Most people believe that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 singularly provided rights to African Americans. It was originally drafted years earlier in both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations to strengthen and/or put “teeth” into the 14th Amendment, which over the years had been eroded and generally flouted by state governments, particularly in terms of housing, education, public accommodations, etc. geared for African Americans. However, among the biggest beneficiaries by far of the Civil Rights Act—and the implementation of ‘”affirmative action”—have been White women, said David Horne, Ph.D. Titles 6, 7 and 9 of the act are specific to women with the seventh addendum making it unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. When the word “sex” was included that insured that women—White women specifically—would have a remedy to fight employment discrimination just as minorities would be able to fight racial discrimination.
“The Civil Rights Act incorporated the first legislative idea of affirmative action,” said Horne, founder and director of the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute. He said the language was a first for African Americans in the federal workforce, but over the years White women would become the most prominent beneficiaries of affirmative action. “The bill helped part of the Black middle class—the poor not so much—and, if anything, America should be thankful to Blacks for not being angry with reneged promises made back then. Much of the wording that would provide access for Black people in the workforce was ignored in both the South and North. After [the legislation] was signed, there remained systemic civil rights violations suffered by African Americans. White women, however, were able to move rapidly into the middle class … into areas and professions where they were once represented in very low numbers.”
The women’s movement
Horne said the irony is stunning, considering that California and many other states have tried to abolish affirmative action programs for budding Black college students, but retain spots reserved exclusively for White women.
Most people think Title 9 applies only to women gaining more access to amateur sports, but athletics is one only one of 10 key areas addressed by the law. These areas include access to higher education; career education; education for pregnant and parenting students; employment; learning environment; math, science and technology (STEM); sexual harassment, and standardized testing. Sixty years ago, many young women of all colors we’re not as readily admitted to colleges and universities as they are today. Academic scholarships were rare and math and science study was primarily reserved for boys. The success of Title 9 is a specific outgrowth of the Civil Rights Act, with Horne noting that the backlash against affirmative action finds many young African American women unable to enjoy the fruits of this landmark legislation. Instead, most of the beneficiaries have been White women, particularly in terms of educational opportunities and job prospects.
Thanks to African Americans, women in this country face far less discrimination, racism, homophobia, prejudice and ridicule. A previous generation of female athletes was warned that physical activity was not only “unfeminine” but was proof of lesbianism. Female athletes were also once depicted as physically unattractive; they were often told that competitive sports would hurt reproductive organs as well as a woman’s chances of marriage. The large number of world-class American women athletes speaks for itself. Horne said none of this progress would have been possible without the Civil Rights Act.
“All of the outstanding American women in the professional and amateur ranks owe a debt of gratitude to Title 9 and the overall impact of the Civil Rights Act,” he said. “Black women have surely benefited from the ability to enter college, hone their athletic skills and embark on successful careers. Yet that may be the extent of the benefits of Title 9 for Black women—they still face discrimination in employment, pregnancy leave and lag far behind in exposure to [high school] STEM education.”
Horne added that the 1960s feminist movement, the Black freedom struggle, a more active and aware youth culture, and other sources of social unrest that once roiled the nation (and the sports world) are all—by extention—rooted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Yet the people which the legislation was originally intended to assist were bypassed in favor of the majority population which, today, often harbors an ambivalence toward outreach to those persons still unable to benefit from the legislation.
The disabled advocates
Historians note that section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title 2 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, are each an extension of the Civil Rights Act. By the 1960s, the civil rights movement had begun to take shape, and disability advocates saw the opportunity to join forces alongside other minority groups to demand equal treatment, equal access and equal opportunity for people with disabilities. Horne said this struggle followed a similar pattern demonstrated by many other civil rights movements because its proponents challenged negative attitudes and stereotypes, rallied for political and institutional change and lobbied for self-determination of a minority community.
Under the ADA, businesses are now mandated to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities (e.g. restructuring jobs, modifying work equipment, making lavatories accessible, installing wheelchair ramps, etc.). The 1973 legislation provided equal opportunity for employment within the federal government (similar to President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order, at the urging of labor leader A. Philip Randolph, outlawing racial discrimination in defense industries), and prohibited discrimination on the basis of either physical or mental disability. And like the Civil Rights Act, this legislation also mandated equal access to public services (i.e. public housing and transportation services) for people with disabilities. It also allocated money for vocational training. By the 1980s, disability activists had begun to lobby for a consideration of various pieces of legislation under one broad civil rights statute that would protect the rights of people with disabilities, much like what the Civil Rights Act had achieved for African Americans.
“The ADA was another byproduct of the Civil Rights Act,” Horne explained. “This legislation provided government support that was not deemed as ‘scornful.’ The ADA provided tremendous opportunities for persons with mental and physical disabilities. For centuries, this population was marginalized, but today there are tens of thousands of physically challenged persons who lead very productive lives. The ADA was a ‘child’ of the ’64 act.”
The LGBT community
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LBGT) community may trace practically all of its ongoing social progress to the Civil Rights Act, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Educatiion Fund. A key point in this history focuses on the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969, where the NYPD went into a gay bar in the city and indiscriminately beat patrons in reaction to what they saw as lewd behavior.
Sexual orientation is still not a protected class within federal law, but for at least 45 years a key goal of the LGBT community has been to win civil rights protection against discrimination in employment, housing and elsewhere.
The Human Rights Campaign in 2012 reported that hate crimes against the LGBT community constituted the third-highest category (14 percent) reported to the FBI. Today, 12 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Also, 23 states and the District of Columbia have placed into law specific civil rights protections against violence motivated by sexual orientation bias.
“The 14th Amendment was drafted and ratified specifically for Blacks, but over the years many other groups have benefited from it,” Horne said. “As it overturned Dred Scott, the U.S. Supreme Court found that it could extend and uphold the rights of the gay community. Much like the African American fight to secure civil rights, the gay community has benefited greatly by the 1964 legislation. This community has organized, marched and pressed for a redress of grievances in a pattern similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.”
Legislative efforts to protect the civil rights of the LGBT community include the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and also the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (formerly known as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act). This act extends federal hate crimes jurisdiction to reach, for the first time, certain violent hate crimes committed because of the victim’s sexual orientation, gender or disability, as well as expand current federal jurisdiction over hate crimes committed on the basis of race, national origin and religion.
New generation learns from past
J. Bob Alotta, executive director of the New York City’s Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, commented on the similarities of the civil rights and gay rights movements, noting that there are now multiple generations working for civil rights.
“Both of these movements have reached maturation,” Alotta said. “Right now you would be talking about grandchildren and children of civil rights activists. Our elders were Black Panthers marching with [Martin Luther King]. Not only have we learned from them, but when we start talking about identity politics, it’s apparent that many of us embody multiple identities.” She went on to explain that the legalization this summer of same-sex marriage nationwide may tempt many people to believe that the civil rights movement is now part of the past.
“That’s not the case. We haven’t eradicated racism, and we do live in a country built on slavery right now. There are plenty of queer people of color whose experiences prove that every day, but there are multiple movements going on. Surely the American civil rights movement set the standard for civil rights movements going on today around the world.”
The Black workers are still atop the Capitol Dome, working with the same pride and determination they did 222 years ago. If the nation were to, somehow, issue a mass “thank you” for all of the foresight, hard work and sacrifices made by African Americans toward the moral certitude of the nation, a likely response should be a heartfelt “you’re welcome.”