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Civil rights 50th anniversary prompts student reflection

Civil Rights 50th anniversary
Members of the US Congress look on as President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964.

For Maria Palacios, student leader of the Diplomats for Diversity group at the University of North Georgia (UNG), the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act serves as motivation to achieve her dreams.

"It reminds me that there are rights that others worked very hard to accomplish. It serves as motivation for me. It ensures that regardless of any obstacles, I also can achieve educational and professional goals in the United States of America," she said.

On July 2, people across the nation marked the anniversary of the legislation. In Washington, D.C., congressional leaders honored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the bipartisan strategy behind the bill in a ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda. King's children accepted the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest civilian honor, on behalf of their parents, two of the most influential agents of change during the Civil Rights era.

Palacios also recounted what she felt the act's most important milestones were.

"Many of the milestones existed in challenges to the way the law is implemented. Our entire nation, in theory, knew the impacts of the Civil Rights Act, which not only mandated anti-discriminatory practices for African Americans, but for all people in the country," Palacios said. "Yet, it still took further detailed legislation to make sure discrimination was not a common practice in this country. Legislation like the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 and the Vocation Rehabilitation Act still had to take place to explicitly demand fair practices for people regardless of age and disabilities."

Dr. Ben Wynne, associate professor of history, said that he keeps students interested in the Civil Rights era by sharing the many compelling stories from that time period, including figures such as King.

"I also strive to ensure that students understand what America was like before the act was passed," Wynne said. "The typical student is far removed from the Jim Crow era and most don't realize just how rigidly segregated the South was during much of the 20th century. The era of segregated schools, segregated drinking fountains, etc., is foreign to them. To know the significance of the Civil Rights Act, it is important to know what life was like before it was passed. We don't live in a perfect society currently, but our region is uniquely situated to reflect the act's success. I see people of different races and nationalities interacting quite comfortably at the university and elsewhere on a regular basis."

Mark Green, an intern in Multicultural Student Affairs said that while the Civil Rights Act was a monumental piece of legislation, he feels that its guarantee of equality still isn't universally accepted. According to a poll conducted earlier this year by CNN, 8 percent of American adults feel that race relations in the U.S. are very good and 57 percent feel that they are fairly good, while 23 percent feel they are fairly bad and 12 percent feel they are very bad.

"I will celebrate the 50th anniversary by reflecting on how far we have come as a society but also on how far we still have to go," Green said. "A great deal of lip service is given to our supposedly 'post-racial' society, yet we still continue to see signs of racial and gender oppression."

Robert Robinson, director of UNG's office of Multicultural Student Affairs, said the act still stands as a testament that the government can effectively make the right decision regardless of political pressure.

"Some of the politicians, Democrats and Republicans, voted for the Civil Rights Act even though they knew it could cost them their elected positions, but they wanted to do what was best for the nation, not what was best for themselves," Robinson said. "Hopefully, this anniversary can inspire today's politicians to address American needs in a more bipartisan manner. Also, as we celebrate this anniversary, we must always remember those who sacrificed so very much so that we all could have freedoms and rights of citizenship."

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