It took the assassination of a president, a ferocious legislative battle and a bloodied army of protesters filling the streets of America to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
A half-century later, defenders of the landmark law say it faces a new threat: Five votes on the U.S. Supreme Court and an indifferent public. As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, it’s tempting to believe the battle over the law is over. But people are still clashing over it — what it means, how long should it last and whether it discriminates against whites. Now some supporters of the law fear the battle has shifted to new terrain. They warn that the conservative majority on the court, headed by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., will do to the law what it did last year to the Voting Rights Act — gut the parts that make it work while leaving its façade still standing. “I think Roberts is very smart and takes the long view,” says Kent Greenfield, a columnist and professor at Boston College Law School. “The Roberts court won’t say this law cannot stand.”
Instead, Greenfield says, the Roberts court is already chipping away at the legal architecture of the act, making it more difficult for an individual or a group to sue for racial discrimination. “It’s getting harder and harder for plaintiffs in discrimination suits to get to the court, much less win their cases,” Greenfield says.
Yet there are conservative and libertarian groups that say the 1964 act has been perverted and that it has spawned all sorts of dubious legal theories.
The act should be celebrated for ending Jim Crow laws, but some parts of it have been twisted by “clever lawyering and political activism” to justify discrimination against whites, says Ilya Shapiro, a constitutional studies expert with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. “It has been invoked to justify racial preferences in public education, employment and contracting,” Shapiro says.