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A Message from the Attorney General on the 49th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Half a century ago, when President John F. Kennedy sent Congress a draft of the Civil Rights Act, he asked members to look into their hearts – “not in search of charity . . . but for the one plain, proud and priceless quality that united us all as Americans: a sense of justice.” Although his presidency was cut tragically short before this audacious proposal could become law, John F. Kennedy’s vision – of a brighter, more inclusive future – helped to rally a new generation of Americans to the cause of equality. As a result, exactly 49 years ago today, his successor – President Lyndon B. Johnson – realized a key part of this vision when he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark legislation included protections against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. In the nearly five decades since its initial passage, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has worked tirelessly to ensure the vigorous enforcement of this important law. And, as a number of recent cases prove, the Act continues to touch the lives of Americans across the nation – and to serve as a potent tool for combating discrimination. For instance, in Indiana – in 2010 – a 22-year veteran of the Griffith Police Department alleged that she was denied a supervisory position because of her sex. Following an extensive Justice Department investigation – and thanks to an agreement reached just last month under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – the Griffith Police Department has agreed to stop this unlawful discrimination and enact new safeguards for its employees. And the female officer now serves as a shift commander, a position she had improperly been denied. Last year, in a separate case in Georgia, a middle school student was repeatedly targeted with verbal and physical harassment because of his Sikh faith. A Civil Rights Division investigation found that the school district had failed to take effective disciplinary measures to end this harassment. Under an agreement the division secured in May under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, the district will work with the student and his family to ensure that he is provided a safe and supportive learning environment. And school officials will develop training resources and safety plans to prevent harassment of other students in the future. Under another important provision of the Civil Rights Act known as Title VI, the department has also taken action to protect the most vulnerable members of society by preventing programs and law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding from engaging in discrimination. Today, the division is working with more departments than ever before to address serious policing challenges and to put in place reforms that will help departments to better protect the people they serve. In 2009, using this powerful tool, the department investigated the treatment of arrestees by the juvenile court in Shelby County, Tennessee, and found that – at almost every measurable decision point – black children were treated more harshly than similarly situated white children. In December of last year, the division entered into an agreement with this jurisdiction to correct systemic violations and safeguard the rights of minority youth. That same month, a court approved a separate agreement between the department and the town of East Haven, Connecticut to address discriminatory policing against Latinos. And the Civil Rights Division has taken a variety of additional actions to bring the Civil Rights Act to bear in promoting equal access to justice in state courts; addressing racial discrimination in student discipline by dismantling the “school-to-prison” pipeline; and continuing critical efforts to desegregate schools and ensure that no one is denied access to public places like restaurants and theaters. Although our nation has seen remarkable, once-unimaginable progress in the half-century since this law went into effect, the reality is that we cannot yet be satisfied. Important work and significant challenges remain before us. That’s why my colleagues and I will continue to enforce the essential protections of the Civil Rights Act. We will keep striving to realize President Kennedy’s inspiring vision. And we will never stop fighting to ensure equal rights, equal opportunity and equal justice for all.

Updated August 24, 2017