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 ‘A Change is Gonna Come’

I got so caught up in the World Cup, especially the beating that Germany put on Brazil (I am still in shock), that I completely forgot that one of the most significant laws in the United States was passed 50 years ago this month. Well, to be honest, while talking (yet again) about the World Cup over dinner, it was one of my British friends who reminded me of the law. The law I am talking about is the Civil Rights Act, signed by then-President, Lyndon B Johnson, on 2 July 1964. Without this law we never would have seen Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan… the list could go on. And, of course, we would not have seen the first Black President, Barack Obama.

I am surprised that there hasn’t been a bigger celebration of this landmark legislation. I think many of us today take this law for granted and forget the suffering, unlawful killings, beatings and incarceration, that our parents and grandparents endured in order for this law to be enacted. This legislation outlaws discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the work place and by facilities that served the general public – It was truly monumental. But despite this huge step forward, minorities are still facing an uphill struggle. There are still many places in United States (for example country clubs) where Black people are not welcome. And it’s a much wider problem than just the USA.  Although this piece is about US law, it’s clear that this is a global issue. If you look at many of our institutions in Britain (even the faculties of various academic groups) you wouldn’t even think that there is a Black population here as there is so little representation.

Just to give you a further history, this law was called for by John F Kennedy in his Civil Rights Speech, He wanted to give all Americans the right to serve in facilities that are open to the public; hotels, restaurants and theatres, and greater protection for the right to vote. However, as history tells it, John F Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963 so did not live to see the passing of this bill. This was not an easy law to pass. When the law came to the Senate for debate in March 1964 there were Senators led by Richard Russell who launched a filibuster to prevent its passage. Russell stated: “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our southern states”. So the passing of this law was an enormous step forward in the plight of Black Americans, which has helped to shape the world in which we now live – despite vehement opposition, the Civil Rights Act prevailed and changed the fate of our lives, our children’s lives and generations to come.

Today is a day to reflect on freedom, and the unending fight for equality. I think it would be appropriate at this point to mention that today is Emmeline Pankhurst’s birthday. She was a British Political Activist and Leader of the British Suffragette Movement who helped women to win the right to vote.

All in all I feel it’s a time to acknowledge that 50 years ago this month we took a giant leap in helping to heal some of the wounds of the United States and make it a greater country.

I would like to end this blog with a video of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” released in December 1964. The song concerns the ill treatment of African-Americans and contains the iconic lyric, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.” The song was inspired by various personal events in Cooke’s life, most prominently an event in which he and his entourage were turned away from a Whites-only motel in Louisiana. Let’s hope that Cooke’s sentiment is right and more change is yet to come.


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