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Locals reflect on 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act

POSTED: July 2, 2014 12:47 a.m.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson declared “all men are created equal.”

But fulfilling that promise is an ongoing battle in America.

“It’s still a struggle, even in this day and time,” said Phyllis Brewer, president of the Gainesville-Hall County chapter of the NAACP. “We have to continue to fight.”

Voter suppression, racial profiling by law enforcement and housing discrimination are just a few of the prejudicial barriers still facing minorities, Brewer said.

Fifty years ago today, however, America took a landmark step toward greater social and economic equality when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

The act prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin and ended prejudicial voter registration requirements. It also put the clamp on racial segregation in schools, the workforce and public spaces.

“It’s an act that changed the world,” Brewer said. “They sacrificed so much ... not just us as African-Americans, but people from all walks of life.”

Indeed, the civil rights movement was more than just ensuring disenfranchised African-Americans could eat in any diner they chose, drink from any water fountain they liked or sit in any bus seat they desired.

The movement was a microcosm of struggles for equality the world over, and its premise of nonviolent resistance laid the foundation for success.

“In my opinion, the 1964 Civil Rights Act should be renamed Human Rights Act of 1964,” said Pamela Stokes, a board member of the Newtown Florist Club in Gainesville. “Human rights is a much stronger word for the act, which was a gallant effort to make things right ...”

In this light, the act, however deeply rooted in America, becomes a universal symbol for equality.

And, in many ways, the civil rights movement in America represented a link in the chain of similar movements the world over. This was not lost on its leader, Martin Luther King Jr.

King was profoundly inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. And after a trip to India in the late 1950s, he expressed his belief in and commitment to nonviolent resistance as the mechanism to advance the burgeoning civil rights campaign.

But for all the successes King inspired, including the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965, some African-Americans believe his legacy is waning in today’s youth.

“The kids today don’t know who he is,” said Joe Randolph, owner of Randolph’s Barber Shop on Athens Street in Gainesville.

Though the clientele is diverse, the barbershop caters to African-American men and boys. They gather for haircuts and good conversation.

On the eve of the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, that conversation turned to race relations in America.

Randolph, 67, said the barbershop would not exist without the law and King’s influence. That’s why a portrait of the civil rights hero hangs on the wall inside.

Barber Davon Ivey, 40, agreed that King is no longer as revered as he once was, even in the African-American community.

Ivey said King is treated superficially in the history books passed out in school today. The solution, he said, lies with parents teaching their kids about the man and his mission.

“You do have to reinforce” King’s legacy, he added.

For Randolph, losing sight of King and the civil rights movement has consequences that are evident today.

“We don’t have the leaders no more,” he said.

Though some of the foundations of institutionalized racism have crumbled, thanks in large part to the Civil Rights Act, bigotry and prejudice can be seen in the stereotypes that remain. It’s often subtle, rather than in your face, barbershop patrons said.

But the impact racism has on minorities, particularly African-Americans, is not always cut-and-dried. Some patrons said nothing has changed; others said the country has made strides; and still others said it has more to do with ignorance than hate.

“This country has to change,” Randolph said. “It isn’t about racism, it’s about stupidity.”

Michael Holeman, 25, swung about in the barber’s chair, rubbing his face and playing will the bill of his ball cap.

He said he doesn’t get upset when he sees a white person driving around Hall County waving a Confederate flag from a truck. He also said he thinks the media, at times, sensationalizes stories about the latest celebrity making the latest racist gaffe.

Holeman doesn’t deny that racism is alive and well. It’s just that he’s hopeful a new day is coming.

Racism will subside “when the culture starts to change,” he said.

Bobby Blake, 45, sat in the barber’s chair thinking over how racism has impacted his life. He recalled an elderly white man from Alabama he knew who regularly used racial slurs.

But Blake doesn’t want to be seen as a victim. He just lets that hate roll off his back.

“You can’t really take it personally,” he said. “This stuff will go on until the day we die.”

Stokes, a lifelong civil rights activist, can remember the days before, during and after the movement’s heyday. But she insists there can be no letting up despite the progress that’s been made. It turns out the Civil Rights Act was just the beginning of a better world.

“Overall, we must be vigilant and continue to strengthen the laws which serve to make things fair for us and continue to be on the alert for examples of unfairness in the 21st century,” she said. “Our young people of all races must and should be mandated to learn the true meaning of this country and the importance of the civil rights, human rights mission.”


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