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Yes, we've come a long way, but America's civil-rights journey remains incomplete

mlk statue
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Much has been accomplished since King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called on America to judge people by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin.

A recent University of Minnesota Law School symposium, “Civil Rights and Civil Justice: 50 Years Later,” served as a timely reminder that, while we should celebrate our progress, America’s long and complicated civil-rights journey is not yet complete. Indeed, as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy often said, “Civil rights is still the unfinished business of America.”

Mark Kappelhoff
Mark Kappelhoff

Unfinished — and, at times, with uneven steps forward. That is why, a half century later, America’s civil-rights laws remain vital to ensuring continued progress in eradicating discrimination and providing opportunity, access and equal justice throughout our country.

Inspired by those who took courageous stands against bigotry and intolerance — heroes such as Rosa Parks, James Meredith, Thurgood Marshall and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — the civil-rights acts enacted by Congress in the 1960s provided the legal tools to prohibit discrimination in housing, voting, employment, education and public accommodations. Leading the charge in Washington were great Minnesotans like Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Rep. Don Fraser, and Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who fittingly was honored at the symposium for his extraordinary efforts.

Civil-rights laws are still necessary

For the last 50 years, these landmark laws have been used to secure equal justice and equal access everywhere, from the schoolhouse to the workplace to the ballot box. We should be proud of how far our country has come.

But we cannot make the mistake of believing that past injustices will stay buried and distant. We cannot dismiss civil-rights laws as unnecessary relics of a bygone era. Yet, some question whether these laws have outlived their usefulness; earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act by noting that “our country has changed.”

America certainly has changed, but laws first enacted a half-century ago continue to be among our most effective tools to combat the bigotry and bias that still plague our communities. This, I know firsthand.

Hate crimes are just one example of civil-rights injustices that continue to haunt us. As a former Department of Justice civil rights prosecutor, I spent more than a decade using hate-crime laws first enacted in 1968 to prosecute bias-motivated crimes committed in the 21st century.

Crosses are still burned, LGBT kids are still bullied

Sadly, in communities across this country, crosses are still burned on lawns. Churches, synagogues and mosques are vandalized and targeted for violence. LGBT students are threatened and bullied in schools. Men and women are attacked and even killed because of the color of their skin, the religion they practice, or the people they love.

As recently as 2011, the FBI documented nearly 8,000 victims of hate-crime incidents. That amounts to one victim for nearly every hour of every day – a truly disturbing number and a stark reminder that civil rights remains America’s unfinished business.

Fortunately, our nation’s leaders at times have been willing to augment the efforts of their 1960s-era predecessors. To better address the hate crimes of today, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in 2009. This bipartisan legislation, which expanded federal hate-crime laws to apply to those motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, has already brought a sense of justice to many victims of hate-fueled violence.

The 2009 hate-crimes law makes a difference

Thanks to this law, six young adults were brought to justice for using a 2-ton pick-up truck to murder an African-American man in Mississippi.

Thanks to this law, two self-described skinheads in New Mexico who used a heated coat hanger to torture a Native American man with a developmental disability were sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms.

And, thanks to this law, for the first time ever, federal prosecutors have convicted defendants in Kentucky, Georgia and Michigan for attacking victims they perceived to be gay.

Much has been accomplished since King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called on America to judge people by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. By remembering the past, acknowledging the present and vigorously enforcing civil-rights laws of both eras, our nation will continue its steady march toward realizing the promise we make in our founding documents: to achieve equal justice for all.

Mark Kappelhoff is a professor of clinical law at the University of Minnesota Law School and is the former Chief of the Criminal Section, Civil Rights Division, of the U.S. Department of Justice. Views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Minnesota.

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Comments (1)

civil rights and the education and incarceration gap

Yes, those civil rights laws remain necessary. But more important is something that addresses the high percent of young black males in the judicial system. They are there because they commit more crimes, not because of discrimination.
Too many black children enter school from low income homes without the background they need to compete with children who know computers and have learned to read when they enter elementary school. As a result African American children often lash out, or more likely, drop out.
I suggest an aggressive pre school program to address this issue, which all the civil rights laws in the world won't help.