The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born from outrage and tragedy.
In May 1963, a horrified country watched on television as Eugene “Bull” Connor, the public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, unleashed police and fire fighters armed with attack dogs, nightsticks and fire hoses on hundreds of African-American marchers.
Reacting to the public outcry, President John F. Kennedy went on national television a month later to announce that he would send a tough civil rights bill to Congress. That same day, Medgar Evers, director of the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was murdered in his driveway.
By the end of November, Kennedy would also be dead, but President Lyndon B. Johnson seized the moment to push ahead with the legislation. Five days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson appeared before Congress saying no eulogy could more eloquently honor Kennedy’s memory than passing the civil rights bill.
The country had talked about equal rights long enough, Johnson declared: “It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
By the following summer, that chapter became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2.
Fifty years later, the achievement of racial equality remains a work in progress – both for the country and this campus, said Charles Daye, Henry Brandis Professor of Law and deputy director of the School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights.
“In general, the quest for justice for African-Americans is a little akin to a Sisyphean struggle: You go up the hill a little bit to roll the rock, and you take your eyes off of it and the rock rolls down the hill, and then you have to start all over,” he said.
“I’ve hung around for over 40 years and I’ve seen the rock roll up the hill quite a bit. I’ve seen it roll back some, too.”
When the Civil Rights Act was passed, Daye was finishing his sophomore year as a student at N.C. Central University. He was arrested with some 1,000 students at some of the civil rights demonstrations he participated in.
Daye continued his own push for racial equality after he joined the Carolina faculty in 1972 as the first black person to hold a tenure-track faculty position at the law school.
Three decades later, Daye felt compelled to say that the faculty had not succeeded at creating sufficient diversity and he approached the dean about increasing the number of African-American faculty at the law school. The dean and the faculty listened and by the mid-2000s there were five black professors – three plus Daye with tenure, and one on the tenure-track.
But in the years since, the number never rose above five, even as the law faculty has grown by nearly a third.
July 2, 2014.