60 years after the Civil Rights Act | WORLD
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Equality for all

Three generations reflect on the promise of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in a ceremony at the White House on July 2, 1964. PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Equality for all
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NO SIGNS HANG ON THE DOOR. No flashy digital displays fill the yard. Mary Morris has never needed that kind of advertisement. Since 1968, word of mouth has kept the curling irons clicking and the hooded dryers humming at Morris Beauty Salon. The shop operates out of a renovated three-room, shotgun-style house in Mobile—Alabama’s fourth-largest city, where more than half the residents are black.

Wearing her trademark leopard-print grooming smock, Morris has three heads of hair to get to today. The past five decades have been good to this 88-year-old small-business owner.

“I was able to send four children to college,” she says. “So I must have done pretty good.”

As I step toward the maroon-colored building, the aroma of coconut, jasmine, and pressed hair meets me at the door. Morris is standing over one of her longtime clients, who’s draped in a matching smock. Tyana Jackson-Morrissette sits with her eyes closed in a black styling chair. About a dozen big yellow rollers are pinned to her head. I open my laptop and press play on the video filling my screen. A familiar Texas twang reverberates from the speakers.

“My fellow Americans, I’m about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 …” Morrissette, now 69, looks up with 10-year-old eyes and begins to spout off everything she remembers about the day news reports captured that footage. On July 2, 1964, Morrissette and her entire family gathered around their black-and-white RCA television, like campers around a campfire, and hung on President Lyndon Johnson’s every word.

“There were tears,” she recalls. “We were excited about it, but at the same time sad about some of the issues that we knew were going to happen because people didn’t want us to vote.”

The Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in public places, such as swimming pools, libraries, hotels, restaurants, and public schools. It also banned discrimination in the workplace and strengthened protections for voting rights. Many credit the act with wiping away the last vestiges of America’s shameful legacy of slavery—legally speaking, at least—and opening doors of opportunity for black people. But 60 years on, amid ongoing debates about affirmative action and claims of racial division, some question whether the landmark legislation lived up to its promise.

Even with the passing of the law, blacks still had to meet certain qualifications in order to exercise the right to vote in states like Alabama. Morris was 28 years old at the time. “I went down immediately to the courthouse to register,” she says as she gently removes the big yellow rollers from Morrissette’s hair. “At that time, when you registered to vote, you had to pay what you called a poll tax.”

Blacks also had to take literacy tests to prove voting eligibility. Later legislation and a Supreme Court ruling eventually ended those practices. Still, decades of segregation made it hard for blacks to believe they were finally entering a new era, free of prejudice.

Waiting for their turns at the shampoo bowl, Morris’ two other clients, both 81 years old, chime in.

“A lot of black people had fear,” says Mary Mills. “You were in the South.”

“Exactly,” declares Lucille Jackson. “Whites were in control and blacks were still second-class citizens.”

In 1965, a year after the Civil Rights Act passed, Morris was hired to do shift work at a local paper company. She had just opened her salon, but she needed health benefits.

“I was among the first black females hired there,” Morris says. But her time at the company was short-lived because of an incident that occurred inside what should have been an integrated bathroom. After working two shifts, Morris was resting on a couch in the ladies’ room. “The white girls came in on their break and I was lying there and they said, you’re going to have to go to the other bathroom. This is our bathroom.”

We knew we lived in a separate world. We didn’t have any mingling with others outside of our race, other than school.

That led to an altercation, and Morris admits she got “very belligerent.” She warned the other girl to leave her alone or she would attack. Morris says that warning turned up the heat. “She said something to me, and I did get up to attack, but the other girls came between us.” One woman reported the incident to the supervisor, which Morris says resulted in her dismissal.

She sighs. “It was still segregated, believe me.”

Morris went back to her salon and built it into a successful business. In 1980, she got a new opportunity she never saw coming. Alabama Gov. Fob James was looking to fill an empty seat on the state’s Board of Cosmetology and Barbering, the agency responsible for creating and enforcing industry rules and regulations. Sixteen years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Morris became the first black woman to serve on that board.

“I had to travel to Montgomery at least twice a month, and my job was to inspect schools and shops, and examine students for their licenses. My students watched my movements and my conversations.”

Morris also influenced her fellow board members. “No matter where I am, I’m gonna say my blessing before I eat,” she says. “The chair of the board would say, ‘Don’t anybody eat until Mary says the blessing.’ And from then on, that’s how the blessing started.”

Mary Morris (right) and Tyana Jackson-Morrissette

Mary Morris (right) and Tyana Jackson-Morrissette Photo by James Edward Bates/Genesis

STANDING IN THE KITCHEN, about 15 miles north of Morris’ beauty shop, Ricardo Woods is going over paperwork before dinner. He’s bald and clean-shaven, and looks nowhere near his 46 years of age. Neither does his petite, curly-headed wife, Tina. The couple, parents of two teen daughters, have been married for 20 years. Ricardo is a partner at a local law firm, and Tina is a senior vice president at a bank. The Woodses live in an affluent golf course community in Baldwin County, the second-fastest-growing county in Alabama. It’s also one of the least diverse. In 2021 it had 9.5 times more white residents than any other race or ethnicity.

The Woodses have lived in Baldwin County for two decades, but they are Mississippi natives. Both were raised in lower-­middle-class working families in predominantly black communities.

“We knew we lived in a separate world,” says Tina. “We didn’t have any mingling with others outside of our race, other than school.” The schools in West Point, Miss., Tina’s hometown, were integrated. But in Natchez, where Ricardo grew up, so-called “separate but equal” reigned.

“I’m not 50 yet, and I went to segregated schools until I was in the sixth grade,” Ricardo says.

Ricardo and Tina Woods with daughters Morgan (left) and Danielle

Ricardo and Tina Woods with daughters Morgan (left) and Danielle Photo by James Edward Bates/Genesis

Thirty-plus years after the Civil Rights Act, schools in Natch­ez remained segregated. Why did it last so long?

“Nobody was really asking those questions that I’m aware of,” Ricardo says. But, he adds, the questions finally came in the late 1980s, when a group of parents petitioned the federal courts, arguing Natchez schools were not properly integrated.

“There was a student, a black student named Lonnie Nichols,” Ricardo recalls. “He’d been told by a coach that he couldn’t sit with his white friends, and so that sparked a huge change.”

It even led to a boycott. Ricardo remembers driving over the river to neighboring Vidalia to buy gas, part of the economic push to force integration.

Once the case was settled and the boycott ended, Ricardo became one of the students bused miles from his home to go to school in another community. “That was the first time that I ever went to school with more than one person who didn’t look like me in my skin color. That was probably the first time that I’d gone to school where the majority of the teachers weren’t black.”

But it would not be the last time. Both Ricardo and Tina were offered the same leadership scholarship to the predominantly white University of Southern Mississippi. From there, they began their careers in law and banking.

Ricardo traces those opportunities, and the couple’s success, back to the Civil Rights Act. He says the opportunities at his law firm were the results of black executives pushing what he describes as one eventual outcome of the Civil Rights Act: affirmative action.

“I am an affirmative action hire,” he says. “When I came in, it was because there was pressure from corporate America to have diverse lawyers. Now, did I work 12 hours a day? Did I ­outwork most of the other interns? Sure I did. But for those gentlemen asking the questions about diversity and equity and inclusion all those years ago, I don’t know if I’d get a shot.”

George Williams

George Williams Photo by James Edward Bates/Genesis

BACK IN MOBILE, George Williams is getting ready for his nightly radio program: The George Williams Show. Wearing a baseball cap, Williams sits in a booth in front of a studio microphone. Across from him, blinking lights fill a console. It’s 7 p.m.: Cue the theme music. Cue the big-voiced announcer. Cue the canned applause.

With a slight nod, the engineer gives Williams the final cue.

“Welcome, welcome, everybody out there in radioland,” Williams intones, in his best broadcasting voice.

The story of 77-year-old George Williams reads like a Hollywood script. He was born in Mobile, one of eight children, but his parents migrated to New Jersey in 1956 when he was in fourth grade.

“My mother was born in 1912. My father was born in 1898. So they knew what was going on,” Williams says.

His parents lived through segregation and wanted better opportunities for their four boys and four girls. But Williams chose a different path. “I didn’t like school that much. I just wanted to play sports. So, when I was a high school senior, I quit school, and I joined the Marines.”

After training at Parris Island, Williams, still a teenager, was assigned to Hawaii’s Kaneohe Marine Corps Base in 1964. Nine months later, he was headed to war. He still remembers these words from his battalion commander: “Marines, tomorrow morning, 0-600, you’re going to make history. We’re going to make the first amphibious landing of the Republic of South Vietnam.”

After four years of active duty and a stint with the National Guard, Williams began a career in law enforcement. “That’s when I went back to college. President Nixon in ’72 said, I don’t want any more dumb cops. So if you’re an active duty police officer, you want to go to school, the federal government will pay the tuition.”

Williams, a husband and father by then, worked the day shift and went to school at night. Nine of his classmates in law enforcement did the same thing.

“Several of us became federal agents, two with DEA, two with Secret Service, and two FBI. Four stayed on the police force.”

Williams spent the next 21 years as a cartel-chasing, cocaine-busting special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. “I was assigned all over the world. I started off in New York. After six years, they chose me to go to Brazil. I had to go to school to learn Spanish and Portuguese.”

His final trip abroad took him to Africa. “But I had to go to language school again, Foreign Service Institute, to learn French.”

While Williams was learning new languages, he says, he also began to view the world through a different lens. “When Jimmy Carter was running for reelection, I was a federal agent. When I looked at what we did in Iran, when they took over the embassy and how weak President Carter was, I said no. And I looked at how strong President Reagan was. I said this is what we need.”

That’s when Williams left the Democratic Party. By the time he retired and moved back to his home state, he had been tapped to play a prominent role in the Alabama Republican Party. “Before you know it,” he says, “I’m the No. 2 man in the Alabama GOP as the Senior Vice Chairman.”

Williams uses the radio show he’s had since 2007 as a platform to promote his conservative views. “We come together and try to talk sense to the blacks in the urban areas to get off of that sinking ship.”

That’s why he says he welcomes a radio conversation with blacks like Ricardo Woods, who attribute their success to programs like affirmative action and legislation like the Civil Rights Act.

“It didn’t help me. I still had to work to get my degrees,” Williams says, his voice rising like a Pentecostal preacher as he testifies on self-sufficiency. “I still had to work when I was in Vietnam to stay alive and to protect my Marine buddies. I had to work to become a police officer and a federal agent. Civil rights didn’t help me on that. It was my willingness to get engaged and do what I had to do in order to qualify.”

Williams also questions the legacy of the Civil Rights Act. “I thought the civil rights bill in ’64 was great. But since that time, my thoughts have changed drastically because, in my opinion, the civil rights bill hurt blacks.”

Williams says it’s a matter of economics. “In our neighborhoods we had black stores, motels, beauty supply stores. We lost that. Now you have foreigners in the black community who own everything.”

Most people call that capitalism. But Williams blames the Civil Rights Act for the decline of black-owned businesses in black neighborhoods.

If this law tells people what they are required to do, but someone feels a certain way, they’re not willing to change their ways. Then, how is that going to promote better change for the future?

ACROSS TOWN AT THE BEAUTY SHOP, Mary Morris admits the Civil Rights Act hurt black schools, too.

“It hurt our black students because they took all of the best teachers we had and put them in the white schools,” she says, adding that many of her clients were teachers. “So I knew what went on in the school system.”

A decade prior to the Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court ended public school segregation with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Integration plans often left black schools shuttered and empty, with black teachers out of a job.

Looking back, Mary Mills says the Civil Rights Act both helped and hurt the black community. She calls that “discarded” history. “The younger people now, they don’t understand it, they don’t see it,” she says from beneath a helmet-like hair dryer. “It’s not taught or talked about in the homes. It’s not something they’re interested in.”

Ricardo and Tina Woods hadn’t even thought about having children when they made the decision to make their home in Baldwin County, even though its schools are considered the best in the area. “We chose the location because it was midway between where Ricardo’s office was 20 years ago and where I was assigned originally,” recalls Tina. “We had some reservations after they started school, based on the makeup of the population. But, we knew we could supplement their education and experiences.”

And they have.

Danielle Woods, 17, and her sister, 15-year-old Morgan, say much of that supplementing happens around the dinner table. “If there’s a comment made by a classmate or a teacher, typically that’s something we talk to our parents about,” Danielle says.

The girls have also gotten to interview their grandparents and hear their stories. Their grandparents didn’t get to go to college, but the sisters have big aspirations. Morgan wants to be a writer. Danielle, a declared theater major, will start her freshman year at the University of Alabama in the fall.

“I think it’s allowed us to realize how very different our lives would be without the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Danielle says.

But then she pauses as she mulls both the past and the future. True, laws have their place in a civilized society. Even in the Bible, the law points us to our sins. But can the law change hearts?

“If this law tells people what they are required to do, but someone feels a certain way, they’re not willing to change their ways,” Danielle says. “Then, how is that going to promote better change for the future?”

Photo by James Edward Bates/Genesis

MARY MORRIS IS FINALLY OFF HER FEET and her beauty shop is empty and quiet. Sitting now in her black styling chair, she tells one more story that sheds light on Danielle’s question.

It was November 1982, and Morris’ appointment to the Cosmetology and Barbering board was almost up. Gov. Fob James, the man who initially appointed her, had declined to run for reelection. That paved the way for Gov. George Wallace to run for a historic fourth term. When he first became Alabama’s governor in 1962, he vehemently opposed integration. In 1972, he was shot during an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed. He left office in 1979, but when James stepped aside three years later, Wallace returned to the state’s top post.

Morris says she had no hope of being reappointed to the board with Wallace in charge. “I never thought he would, because he was a segregationist from his heart. He said ‘segregation now, segregation forever.’”

But the following year, Wallace did reappoint Morris to the board. She remembers the day he swore her in, sitting in his wheelchair.

“When I came in for him to swear me in, he said, ‘Nice to meet you, Ms. Morris.’ I said, ‘Likewise, Gov. Wallace.’ I said, ‘You look so good.’” What he said next, and the way he said it, changed her opinion of him. “He said, ‘Baby, I wish I felt good.’ He said, ‘I am in pain every day of my life.’”

The two posed for a photo together. He sent it to her later. On the bottom corner of the photo, he wrote: “To my friend, Mary Morris, Best Wishes.” That picture has hung on Morris’ wall for the past four decades. It reminds her that with God, all things are possible.

“God changed his heart,” she says. “I don’t care how high you are in power. You’re not higher than the almighty power of God.” Amid today’s racial tensions, Morris hangs onto that.


John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy Associated Press

Fall 1960 | John F. Kennedy pledges to address the issue of civil rights in his presidential campaign. That pledge, and his role in freeing Martin Luther King Jr. from jail, wins Kennedy ­crucial support from black voters.

1961-1962 | Kennedy, now president, appoints several African Americans to powerful positions in his administration, but doesn’t advance any meaningful civil rights legislation.

Bill Hudson/AP

May 1963 | Demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham, Ala., turn violent as police attack marchers, including children, with clubs, dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses. Images from the protests sweep the nation.

June 11, 1963 | Kennedy delivers the first presidential address explicitly condemning racial segregation. In the early morning hours of June 12, a member of the White Citizen’s Council murders NAACP official Medgar Evers.

June 19, 1963 | Motivated by Evers’ murder and significant resistance to desegregation, Kennedy asks Congress for a comprehensive civil rights bill.

Associated Press

Aug. 28, 1963 | The NAACP and other organizations lead over 200,000 demonstrators in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, stirring public support for the civil rights bill. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Afterward, King and others meet with Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to press for the passage of civil rights legislation.

Nov. 22, 1963 | Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Johnson is hastily sworn in as president aboard Air Force One.

Nov. 27, 1963 | Johnson delivers a speech before Congress, declaring, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

Feb. 10, 1964 | The U.S. House of Representa­tives passes a civil rights bill.

March 9, 1964 | In the Senate, the Southern bloc of a divided Democratic Party launches a filibuster against the bill. That creates the longest continuous debate in the Senate’s history, lasting 60 days.

Everett M. Dirksen

Everett M. Dirksen Associated Press

May 26, 1964 | Republican Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois introduces a new draft of the bill, softening several sections on enforcement and penalties that some Republicans objected to, winning enough support to counter Democratic opposition.

June 10, 1964 | Dirksen delivers a powerful speech calling racial integration “an idea whose time has come.” Twenty-seven Republicans and 44 Democrats join together to end the Senate debate in a 71-29 vote.

June 19, 1964 | The Senate passes the Civil Rights Act 73-27.

LBJ Presidential Library

July 2, 1964 | The House approves the Senate’s version of the Civil Rights Act. The bill’s 11 sections ban discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, and federally funded agencies and strengthen protections against school segregation and voter discrimination. Johnson signs the act into law in a nationally televised broadcast alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

—compiled by Elizabeth Russell

Myrna Brown

Myrna is a WORLD Radio host and correspondent. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and Luther Rice College and Seminary. Myrna has worked as a TV news reporter, public affairs show host, and producer. She resides with her husband in Spanish Fort, Ala. They have four adult children.



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