Honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

July 2, 2014Rabbi David Saperstein

On this milestone 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Reform Jewish community joins advocates nationwide in paying tribute to a generation of activists whose struggles more than five decades ago changed our nation for the better.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 reflected the commitment of a broad coalition of advocates seeking to remedy one of the gravest injustices in American history. We are proud of the contributions of the American Jewish community - including so many Reform rabbis and congregants - to that broad effort. During the civil rights movement, Jewish activists represented a disproportionate number of whites involved in the struggle as college students and activists on the ground, Members of Congress, academics and lawyers. Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Leaders of the Reform Jewish community were arrested with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations.

We take particular pride in the fact that the civil rights community's proposed changes to the White House's draft of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were crafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), under the aegis of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which for decades was located in the RAC's building. The RAC website will feature reminiscences of those who played active roles in those momentous years.

When President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, it was made clear that discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin would no longer be acceptable under the law. Fifty years later, we recognize the progress we have made, with educational, employment, economic and political opportunities open to millions who once would have been denied them - even as we affirm the essential work that remains.

In the 50 years since the landmark law's passage, the Religious Action Center and the Jewish community broadly have worked to build on the foundation it has provided. From the Voting Rights Act the following year, to the continuing effort to address persistent discrimination against people of color in housing, employment, the criminal justice system, education, and other areas, the work of the civil rights movement continues to guide and inspire generations of activists. Today, we work as well to address discrimination against women, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, persons with disabilities, immigrants, and other marginalized members of American society. Addressing these injustices remains the crucial unfinished work of the civil rights movement.

Judaism teaches respect for the fundamental rights of others as each person's duty to God. "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Equality, in the Jewish tradition, is based on the concept that all of God's children are "created in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). In that spirit, on this crucial anniversary we reaffirm our commitment to carrying on the legacy bequeathed to us by a generation of civil right activists to bring about a world that is more whole and just.

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