The signing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964 freed all people of color, and African Americans in particular, from the shackles of legalized racist oppression. But the liberation of the disenfranchised from Jim Crow law took more than a few strokes of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pen; rather, years of untold struggle and deep, personal sacrifice prefaced the historic moment.
In the same manner, the newly freed African Americans, as a whole, did not immediately begin to take advantage of the full range of opportunities the Civil Rights Act created; instead, they have slowly marched forward, gaining important ground along the way.
Fifty years later, there’s still a lot of ground to gain, says Micah Guster, an attorney practicing in Chattanooga. “In essence, achieving justice was easy – they wrote the bill, they passed it, and they signed it into law,” he says. “Achieving the economic component of the Civil Rights Act has been more tenuous.”
Guster will have an opportunity to voice his thoughts next week as the Chattanooga Chapter of the Federal Bar Association (the local FBA) hosts a series of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. The two-day celebration, to be held at Second Missionary Baptist Church in Chattanooga, will include a youth luncheon on Monday, July 7, and a celebratory banquet on Tuesday, July 8.
Guster is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the youth luncheon. Rather than dusting off a history lesson the young people have already heard, he plans to show how the Civil Rights Act continues to be relevant today in the form of the economic avenues it opened up.
“There were things 50 years ago you couldn’t do, but just because the government has put a law into place doesn’t mean you’re taking full advantage of it,” he says. “Laws come and go with the political wind, so make the most of the law while you still have it on your side. A lot of our ancestors fought really, really hard for this. So I feel as though I owe it to the people who came before me to do something.”
A member of the event committee, Guster came up with its slogan: “Marching forward.” He says marching forward isn’t always about winning big battles, but being persistent – something he wants to compel the youth to do, especially when pressing forward economically. “A march is generally a walk, not a run; if you simply keep moving forward in the same direction, success will eventually come to your life,” he says. “We need to keep pushing forward and going in the right direction. Don’t go backward, go forward as a doctor, a lawyer, or a business owner.”
The youth luncheon will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The Howard High School Band, led by director Dexter Bell, will provide entertainment along with the Stars of Chattanooga, a local performing arts ensemble. The Stars of Chattanooga are writing music specifically for the event.
The youth luncheon has been preceded by an art contest in which middle and high school students were invited to submit art related to civil rights topics. The two winners will be honored during the luncheon, and will receive Apple iPads. The event will conclude with an open mic session allowing young people to speak out on related issues. The Bar expects about 150 youth from a variety of schools and churches to attend.
“It’s about not forgetting,” says attorney Donna Mikel, event chair. “We don’t want our young people to forget the importance of what happened.”
The celebratory banquet will take place at 6 p.m. the following day, and will host 250 community residents, lawyers, and leaders. United States District Court Judge Curtis L. Collier will provide opening keynote remarks. Judge Collier, who served as the first African American district court judge in the Eastern District of Tennessee and later became the chief judge, will comment on the history of the civil rights movement, highlighting certain “heroes” who helped to bring life to the law.
Mikel, who wrote a biography of Collier, says Guster’s personal story is compelling, making him an ideal speaker. “He grew up in rural Arkansas, where his family picked cotton. He decided early on he was not good at picking cotton – it was not for him,” she says. “He grew up in segregated schools, but he had inspiring teachers, and he ended up in one of the most prestigious positions in Eastern Tennessee.”
Collier will be followed by Bakari Sellers, a South Carolina state representative. At the time of his election in 2006, Rep. Sellers, an attorney, became the youngest member of the South Carolina General Assembly at age 22. He’s the son of civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers, a graduate of Morehouse College and the University of South Carolina School of Law, and is currently running for lieutenant governor of South Carolina. His remarks will focus on the future of civil rights in America.
Entertainment will be provided by Chattanooga-based performance group The Creative Underground, directed by Shane Morrow. Herman’s Soul Food is catering both the luncheon and the banquet.
The local FBA’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights Act has its roots in last year’s annual meeting of the national organization, which Mikel attended, and during which the leadership asked local chapters to sponsor activities marking the occasion. To ensure a stand out event, the Chattanooga group assembled a diverse event committee, with members spanning a range of ages, backgrounds, and professions. Some of the members of the 27-member committee including Judge Collier, Chattanooga City Councilman Moses Freeman, Guster, U.S. District Attorney William C. Killian, young entrepreneur Derelle Roschell. “This is a group of people who care about this topic,” Mikel says.
The local FBA also attracted a number of sponsors to the event. Partnering with the local FBA to sponsor the event are the Federal Bar Foundation, the City of Chattanooga, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee. Additionally, CARTA has donated trip tokens for those in need of transportation to the event. Finally, local law firms and individual attorneys have sponsored tables at the event.
Also on the committee is attorney Boyd Patterson, Jr., who says the importance of the Civil Rights Act cannot be understated. “Laws get passed for a lot of reasons – for economic benefit, to protect society – but this was one where it was the absolute moral thing to do,” he says. “And it happened in a climate of strong and even violent opposition. This was a piece of landmark legislation in terms of its language and getting it to where it could be voted on.
“The struggle wasn’t over once it was passed, but it gave the citizens of the United States who’d been traditionally excluded from full citizenship the right to everything everyone else had. It was a huge step in getting everyone on equal footing when it comes to opportunity.”
Mikel is excited about hosting the event in Chattanooga, a city with a history of supporting civil rights. “Students from Howard High participated in the Chattanooga sit-ins,” she says, speaking of the non-violent protests in the late ‘50s and early ‘60 throughout the segregated South and elsewhere in which mostly black students sat at whites-only lunch counters and asked to be served. “We want the students of today to feel, and to understand, the motivation of those students, and to be inspired to do something.”
Source: Some material provided by the local FBA