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The legacy of a law


WORLD Radio - The legacy of a law

On the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, three generations discuss the benefits and shortcomings of the legislation

Mary Morris (right) in her beauty salon with Tyana Jackson-Morrissette James Edward Bates/Genesis Photos

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, July 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Equality for all.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many credit the act with wiping away the last traces of America’s shameful heritage of slavery. As well as opening doors of opportunity.

Still, others question whether the historic legislation has lived up to its promise. WORLD’s Myrna Brown brings us the story from three generations and perspectives.

SOUND: [TV blaring and curling iron clicking]

MYRNA BROWN REPORTING: Mary Morris is the owner of Morris Beauty Salon. While one of her clients is lulled by the rhythm of the old school curling iron…the other two catch up on their favorite soap opera.

AUDIO: Victoria getting married. Did you know them when they were married? Uh-uh…

SOUND: [Electric razor]

As 88-year-old Morris puts the finishing touch on 69-year-old Tyana Morrissette’s curls, I open my laptop, press play and instantly take them back 60 years.

AUDIO: My fellow Americans, I’m about to sign into law the Civil RIghts Act of 1964…

Each woman immediately recognizes the voice and vintage footage of former president Lyndon B. Johnson. On July 2nd, 1964, Johnson sat behind two microphones and spoke to a wounded nation.

TYANA MORRISSETTE: I remember when we had gotten home from school and there was a special report. I remember this on television.

Morrissette says she was 10 years old when her entire family gathered around their black and white RCA to watch President Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act into law. The bill banned discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, and federally funded agencies.

TYANA MORRISSETTE: There were tears. We were excited about it but at the same time sad about some of the issues that we knew were going to happen.

MARY MILLS: Yeah, right. You know, you still had whites in control.

LUCILLE JACKSON: We were known as second class citizens.

MARY MILLS: Exactly!

Decades of so-called “separate but equal” left 81-year-olds Mary Mills and Lucille Jackson with little confidence in the new law.

MARY MILLS: It was a good speech he made trying to get everybody together…

LUCILLE: And it was something that they wanted to hear.

MYRNA TO LADIES: Did you believe it? I didn’t. I did not believe it.

AUDIO: [Dishes clattering, water running] Morgan’s got dance Saturday and Sunday…

Ricardo Woods lives about 15 miles from Morris Beauty Salon. He’s reviewing the family schedule around the kitchen bar with his wife and two teenage daughters. Woods wasn’t even born when the landmark legislation outlawed segregation in public places like restaurants, hotels, and public schools. But the 46-year-old does remember when his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi finally caught up….more than two decades after the law was enacted.

RICARDO WOODS: I went to segregated schools until I was in the sixth grade. The beginning of my sixth grade year, we were going to integrated schools and 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.

Despite the slow start, Woods says he and his family have benefited from the Civil Rights Act. They live in an affluent golf-club community. His wife Tina is a bank executive. And he’s a partner at his law firm.

RICARDO WOODS: When I came in it was because there was pressure from corporate America to have diverse lawyers. Now, did I work really hard? Did I outwork most of the interns? Sure I did. But at the end of the day, my opportunity came because of the call to action, which was a call for increase in diversity, which ultimately affirmative action. You have to go out and find somebody who’s black or brown and give them an opportunity. That doesn’t happen without the Civil Rights Act.

Both 15-year-old Morgan Woods and her 17-year-old sister Danielle say some of their classmates seem baffled by their parent’s accomplishments.

MORGAN WOODS: A white friend might be surprised that our parents are this successful. But it’s also black friends, too.

DANIELLE WOODS: I had one of my friends come over and she was like, oh my gosh, Danielle. Like, I was so surprised. I didn’t expect this from black people. I know she didn’t mean it in that type of way to be offensive, but it was saddening that she, I guess, felt that we couldn’t have this life.

AMBI: [Radio station]… Talk, from both sides of the Bay… …one minute…

Across town, inside a tiny studio of a 50,000-watt radio station…

AUDIO: 30 seconds…

…an engineer sits in front of a broadcast console and gives conservative talk radio host George Williams a countdown.

AUDIO: Here we go…[announcer] It’s time for the George Williams show…

77-year-old Williams dropped out of high school the year the Civil Rights Act passed. He joined the Marines and fought in Vietnam. After four years of active duty and a stint with the National Guard, the Alabama native began working in law enforcement. That led to a two-decade career as a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Now, I thought the Civil Rights Act in ‘64 was great. But since that time, my thoughts have changed drastically.

For one, Williams rejects any notion that the Civil Rights Act helped advance his career as a federal agent.

GEORGE WILLIAMS: It was my willingness to get engaged and do what I had to do in order to qualify. Civil Rights didn’t help me on that.

Williams also questions the legacy of the law.

GEORGE WILLIAMS: The Civil Rights bill hurt the blacks. In our neighborhoods we had black stores, motels. We lost that. Now we have foreigners in the black community who own everything.

The retired vet blames the Civil Rights Act for the decline of black-owned businesses in black neighborhoods. A subject he often brings up on his radio program.

Mary Morris points to her picture with former Alabama governor George Wallace.

Mary Morris points to her picture with former Alabama governor George Wallace. James Edward Bates/Genesis Photos

AUDIO: [Radio commentary chatter]

AUDIO: [shampoo bowl] ooh, that’s hot…

Back at the beauty parlor, Mary Morris is at the shampoo bowl with her last client. Nearly every inch of her renovated salon is covered with pictures of models from the ‘80’s, showcasing fancy hairdos. But one photograph from that era stands out. Morris is standing next to former Alabama governor George Wallace. The picture was taken after Wallace surprisingly re-appointed Morris to the state’s Cosmetology and Barbering Board.

MARY MORRIS: I never thought he would because he was a segregationist from his heart. And when he signed that picture of us, he said, “To my friend Mary Morris, Best wishes.”

Morris says even a law as far reaching as the Civil Rights Act could never wield that kind of power.

MARY MORRIS: God changed his heart. So I don’t care how high you are in power. You are not higher than the almighty power of God. So, that’s what I look at now…things that’s going on now. But God!

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Myrna Brown in Mobile, Alabama.

EICHER: Myrna’s cover story on the Civil Rights Act is the lead feature in this month’s WORLD Magazine. She also produced a companion piece on today’s episode of WORLD Watch, our video news program for students. We've posted links for both in today’s transcript.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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