The Civil Rights Act at 50 [Commentary]

Fifty years ago this summer, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, marking a watershed moment in our nation's history and in the ongoing struggle of African-Americans for fair and equal treatment.

The passage of the law, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and ended voter discrimination and segregation of schools, came amidst a tumultuous period that saw sit-ins, marches and mass protests staged from major cities to college campuses of every size. These were the vehicles of a massive social movement and symbolized the "tipping point" for modern day racism, the beginning of what we hope will one day be an end to tolerance of intolerance. There would be several more years of "moments" after the act was passed that we reflect on today and can see were catalysts for changing hearts and minds regarding issues of race.


Here in Baltimore, the protest to end the segregation of Gwynn Oak Park on July 4, 1963, was one such moment. Members of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, including many priests, were active participants in that protest, as well as the marches in Washington, D.C. and other cities across the country. In fact, three Catholic priests were arrested that Independence Day over their involvement in the Gwynn Oak Park protest. The Archbishop of Baltimore during that time was Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, who was among the nation's leading religious figures during the civil rights movement and added a much needed voice to the public discourse. But he not only talked the talk, he also walked the walk… literally!

Cardinal Shehan participated in the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In January of that same year, Cardinal Shehan appeared before the Baltimore City Council to testify in favor of the Open Housing Bill with an estimated 2,000 people in attendance (reportedly, a man called hours before the hearing and threatened to shoot the cardinal if he spoke in favor of the bill that would eventually fail; the cardinal's brother, who received the threat, never told his brother because he knew how determined he was and would not be deterred). In March of that year, the cardinal banned racial discrimination in the institutions of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, including schools, churches, social organizations and charitable institutions. A Baltimore Sun article about the decision quotes the Cardinal as saying, Catholics "have a special obligation to place ourselves in the forefront [of efforts to end] injustices and discrimination which still remain."


Three years later in 1966, the cardinal formed the first Archdiocesan Urban Commission to position the church to better address the unique needs of those living in Baltimore City, which had begun to see spikes in violence and poverty.

The Archdiocese remains actively engaged in the church's efforts to confront and bring about an end to racism, which it considers a sin and a societal evil. The local church also creates and promotes programs and ministries that seek to address the root causes of those factors that contribute to inequality and injustice, including economic, housing, and educational disparities. Through the programs sponsored by our parishes, schools and Catholic Charities, the Archdiocese seeks to advance the work begun by Cardinal Shehan to ensure the Catholic Church continues to be present in communities and improve lives. For example, our Catholic schools in Baltimore City educate majority non-Catholic, African-American students whose education is heavily subsidized by the church's private partners seeking to improve lives (and communities) through education. This partnership affirms the belief that government, alone, cannot address such issues. Churches and other non-government institutions must partner with the government to realize the dream of a truly just society.

Though our country has come a long way in the past five decades, no one dare say the stain of racism has been eradicated from the fabric of our society. The sad and disturbing scenes that have recently played out in the suburbs of St. Louis — and similar ones that have occurred in many communities around the country, including some here in our region — are just the latest reminders that we still have a way to go, making this statement from Cardinal Shehan's 1968 pastoral letter eerily and sadly relevant today: "Recent experience has shown much — very much — remains to be done; that grave wrongs still need to be righted."

William E. Lori is archbishop of Baltimore. He can be reached at

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