50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

August 14, 2014

hollmon_bookBy Ralph Hollmon
President & CEO
Milwaukee Urban League

As we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we must never forget the vision and courage of those who worked to ensure its passage and we know that some of them made the ultimate sacrifice.
I also want to thank and commend James Santell and his colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s office for organizing this program today – and I know that I speak for my colleagues, James Hall, NAACP: Tony Baez, The Centro Hispano; and many other community organizations when I say – we are very pleased to be a part of celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which many consider the most important piece of legislation of our time.
Clearly, since the passage of this Act, “doors of opportunity” have been opened and progress has been made in many sectors. For example:
• We have more African American elected officials than ever before;
• We have more African American executives and professionals working in corporate America;
• We have more African Americans who have dominant roles in the world of sports and entertainment;
• We have an African American United States Attorney General – Eric Holder;
• And, yes, our Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama is an African American.
But, in spite of this progress – 50 years after the Civil Rights Act – we still have a “tale of two cities.” We have some people who are doing well – if not very well. On the other hand, we have people who are mired in generational poverty and hopelessness.
In too many of our urban areas across the country, we have crime, violence, unemployment and other disparities that negatively impact a person’s quality of life. To help illustrate this point – let’s look at a few of the conditions right here in Milwaukee:
• University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Professor Marc Levine has reported in his studies that nearly 50 percent of the working age African American men are unemployed in Milwaukee’s central city.
• A University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute study found that Wisconsin leads the nation in the percentage of African American men that it incarcerates. The vast majority of African American men in Wisconsin reside in Milwaukee.
• Data shows that Milwaukee is one of the top 10 cities with the highest poverty rate in the nation.
• Not long ago the National Assessment of Public Education, or NAPE, studies show that Wisconsin has the worst 4th grade reading levels for African American students in the nation.
In addition, when we consider that too many of our students, whether in public, charter or choice schools, are not performing academically at grade level – it paints an alarming, dismal picture for the future.
You know, in the 1960’s, during the Civil Rights Movement, we fought for the right to sit at the lunch counter. But now, with the poor academic achievement levels of many of our students – I fear that some may not be able to read the menu when they sit at the lunch counter.
So, as we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we must remain vigilant in the following areas:
• First, we must work hard to preserve the integrity of the Voting Rights Act – which allows every citizen the opportunity to participate in the process of determining our leaders – both locally and nationally.
• We must work hard to combat discrimination and ensure that all citizens are treated fairly – and given equal access to opportunities that our great nation offers.
• Second, we must figure out more effective ways to help those mired in poverty and hopelessness.
• We must help everyone, especially our students understand the value and importance of getting a good education.
• We must help the unemployed get training so they are better prepared for the jobs that exist in our 21st century economy.
• And finally, we must find a way to stop the gun violence and self-destructive behavior of young black men killing each other. We must reach our young men and show them that there are alternatives to guns, violence and premature death.
If we are not vigilant in these areas – if we don’t maximize our resources and work together on these issues – we will not be successful in preserving the progress – the legacy – of this Historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.