Barking police dogs. Screams of terror. The sound of water hoses striking skin. Tireless groups of African-Americans singing “We Shall Overcome.” The bodies of black men and women hanging from trees surrounded by a white mob.
These images flashed across black-and-white television screens shaped many Americans’ understanding of African-Americans’ struggles for equality in the decades leading up to Wednesday, July 2, 2014, the 50th anniversary of the President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This landmark legislation was a new, life-changing chapter for every American, and it opened a world of possibility for myself and other minority Americans.
I grew up in a house in which education was required and pro-black activism was emphasized.
It was the kind of house where Martin Luther King Jr. Day wasn’t just a day off from school, but a day during which we paid tribute to the men and women who laid down their lives and fought for equality. My family was among those who, in August 1963, gathered around the radio waiting to hear Dr. King’s monumental “I Have a Dream” speech.
I was raised by a single mother who was an educator who worked tirelessly to teach Detroit youths the importance of critical thinking in America. These values are intertwined in my family history.
How has the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed your life?
My mother’s father and my grandfather, Milton Henry Bledsoe, was a college-educated black man who graduated in 1927 and went on to become president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Topeka, Kansas. He was a journalist for the African-American newsweekly JET Magazine, and he marched on Washington and with Dr. King.
I am the great-niece of Charles Bledsoe, an attorney who successfully argued the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case desegregating America’s schools, Brown vs. Board of education. Integration of the nation’s public schools was another important date in black and other minority Americans’ struggle for equal treatment and equal access under the law.
I grew up hearing about these and other important milestones in the battle for equal treatment under the law. They are important in American history, and my history.
My uncle was 21 when he attended the march on Washington with his father. Thousands of men and women gathered under Dr. Martin Luther King’s voice and my uncle says it was like a long overdue party. People came from across the country to hear this incredible man speak. When he began his famous “I Have A Dream” speech the crowd went silent, everyone was mesmerized by his determination, courage and wisdom.
“It was a life changing experience,” Uncle Milton saidHe and my grandfather traveled 19 hours on a bus to get to the march and when they were 12 miles outside of Washington, DC, the bus driver declined to drive farther because his shift was over. They waited four more hours for another bus driver to arrive.
“I knew that I had to be a part of the change taking place after I read Dr. King’s first book, ‘Stride Towards Freedom,’ a book that told the story of the bus boycott in Montgomery, AL,” Uncle Milton said. “Dr. King gave his life trying to help people, and there was no one like him.”
Because of my family’s important role in and experience of the fight for civil rights, I have the advantage of going to schools full of diversity. I am fortunate to have the right to register to vote without fear of confrontation, sit in any seat of my choice on the bus and eat in any restaurant.
My family has inspired my path. I am not unique. Millions of other Americans of my generation are equally proud of their own families’ legacies in the American social struggles of the 20th century.
“Its purpose is not to divide but to end divisions; divisions which have lasted all too long,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said 50 years ago as he made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the law of the land.
Divisions that still exist across America highlight the lack of equality.
The LGBT community’s demands for same-sex equality have not been fully answered.
It is felt in the outrage felt toward Marissa Alexander’s possible 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot.
It is painfully represented in the socioeconomic disadvantages experienced by an unacceptably high proportion of minorities.
It can be felt by the American woman who on average earns 77 percent less than the man sitting next to her.
As the anniversary of this landmark case approaches, it is worth considering how much further we have to go as a nation to truly end the divisions Johnson hoped the Civil Rights Act would end.
My grandfather died in 1978. He witnessed enormous change occur to the position of minorities in America. I hope that one day my granddaughter will be in a position to reflect on the further progression that her generation experiences. I hope she writes of our inequalities as distant memories.(Courtney Bledsoe is a Detroit native and a Dow Jones intern for Patch.com)