Fifty years ago, the country was transformed when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2, 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
The Hillsborough County Office of Community Affairs, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the City of Tampa hosted a historical presentation Wednesday afternoon that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the events leading up to its passage.
“Many people lost their lives paying the price for civil rights,” John Schmelzer, acting director of field coordination programs for EEOC, said. “This law changed domestic America.”
Photographs of black people who were hosed down, lynched or bit by police dogs were shown during the presentation in the auditorium of John Germany Library. It served as a reminder to the audience of 30 people that it was only fifty years ago when violence against people of color was sanctioned.
With the Civil Rights Act, people of color were finally able to walk into stores without being shooed out. They could sit anywhere in the bus, without being told to move to the back with the rest of the black people. Children of all races had the chance to go to the same schools as white children, instead of going to the underfunded, crowded schools that were designated for colored people.
Some places, such as Hillsborough County, didn’t immediately enforce desegregation, however.
Black parents in Hillsborough County were unable to get their children into white schools in 1958. This was four years after the Supreme Court prohibited segregation in public schools. Several black parents and their children take the school district to court in Mannings vs. the School Board of Hillsborough County.
Four years later, a federal court found out about the illegally segregated public school system that was operated by the Hillsborough County. However, it wasn’t until 1971 when black and white students were able to go to the same schools in Hillsborough.
Even though we have come a long way from then, we are not done yet, State Representative Alan Williams said.
“Our walk isn't complete. We have better shoes on,” Williams said. “We have a better GPS system. But our walk to freedom isn't over.”
Local and national leaders came together to urge people to keep fighting for their freedom.
“I'm saying to black people, white people and people of goodwill, you've got to participate in the American society because there are people who will turn back,” Attorney at Law Delano Stewart said. “They will re-segregate. They will re-discriminate.”
Although colored people can exercise their rights more freely, there is still discrimination, Hillsborough NAACP President, Carolyn Hepburn Collins said.
“If we look at the progress we have made over the last fifty years, we've also had some serious regression,” Collins said. “Education is critical. It is almost synonymous now when you count the number of African-Americans in the third grade and determine the prison beds.”
With knowledge comes power, said Neil Armstrong.
“Take what you've learned and share it. Mentor younger kids,” Armstrong said. “You have experiences that you can share with younger people that might turn the light on in their heads.”
Armstrong is well-known for his involvement in the Tampa Bay community. In 2012, Tampa Bay Lightning honored Armstrong as a Lightning Community Hero.
We need to urge younger generations to get involved and further the actions of their ancestors, Williams said.
“We can't wait for generation next. We need generation now,” Williams said. “We need leaders to step up to the forefront and ensue their God given place paid for in advance by the blood, sweat and tears.”