Congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., on June 24 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by posthumously bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal upon Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King for their efforts in passing the landmark legislation.
In South Florida, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Miami-Dade County Community Advocacy Boards marked the occasion with an event this Wednesday at the Florida International University’s Kovens Conference Center in North Miami.
And the NAACP said reflection on the half-century since the passage of the landmark legislation will be a focus during its 105th annual Convention slated for Las Vegas July 19-23.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2, 1964. It helped end legal discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin and many consider it the most significant law to come out of the civil rights movement.
“The Civil Rights Act transformed our country,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said during the presentation of the medals. “It made America more American.”
Those joining Pelosi in praising the Civil Rights Act and the people who made it happen included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
Throughout the lawmakers’ remarks were calls for a return to the bipartisanship that made laws like the Civil Rights Act possible.
Remembering the civil rights activists who marched, protested and faced brutality and violence was vital, the lawmakers said. But they added that it was important to remember the lawmakers who made passage possible.
Boehner said the Civil Rights Act might be the “most fundamental, the most consequential legislation” in American history. McConnell said that King deserved as much credit as any lawmaker in getting the law passed.
“His role was not just to expose or to confront injustice, but to prepare the country to actually do something about it,” McConnell said.
It was the second Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Kings for their contributions to the civil rights movement. The previous medal was awarded in 2004.
The Kings’ children Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King and Bernice A. King, accepted the honor June 24 in the Capitol Rotunda as several hundred looked on. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968. His widow died in 2006.
“What an amazing day. This is the first honor of this magnitude where my parents are honored together, reflecting the powerful partnership they shared in the struggle for freedom and justice,” said Bernice A. King in a statement. “It is so fitting, especially because my mother often said, ‘that she did not just marry the man she loved, she married the mission and the movement’ and understood her role in their partnership.”
Sponsors of the local commemoration included the EEOC, the Florida Bar Association’s Labor & Employment Law Section, Florida International University, the Miami-Dade County Commission for Women, the Miami-Dade County Hispanic Affairs Advisory Board, the Miami-Dade County Office of Community Advocacy, the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board and the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association.
A statement from the organizers noted that the legislation prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin in areas such as employment, housing and public accommodations.
“The Act transformed American society and was the culmination of years of struggle by civil right activists fighting for justice and equality,” the statement said.
But the anniversary comes at a time when voting rights are among major concerns. The NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, said its convention theme, “All In for Justice & Equality,” will put the focus on several issues, including “pushing back on voter suppression efforts.”
“In this pivotal election year, it is especially important for us to address voter suppression and the challenges facing communities of color and the nation as a whole,” NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said in a statement announcing the convention.
“As we tackle important issues like health care, economic opportunity, education and civic engagement, we know that we cannot fully recover as a nation unless we are courageous, stand in solidarity and get out the vote,” Brock said.
“The NAACP will continue to educate, mobilize and agitate to create an informed and engaged populace and continue the work in ensuring every American has unfettered access to the ballot box,” she said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in preparing this story.