Beginning April 8, the LBJ Presidential Library will conduct a Civil Rights Summit to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The historic event will include presentations by three U.S. Presidents and distinguished panelists across the civil rights spectrum. Regrettably, the Summit does not include representation from the disability community. The National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency whose 15 members are appointed by the President, urges the LBJ Presidential Library to take this opportunity to include the perspectives and contributions 54 million Americans with disabilities in keeping our collective eyes on the prize for every American still subject to discrimination.
Just as the legislative journey toward justice that resulted in passage of the Civil Rights Act began long before the law was championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and passed by Congress, the Civil Rights Act remains in many ways a work in progress as we seek to create a society where every American is recognized, included and valued in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
In a speech on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy called for civil rights legislation that would give “all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments", as well as "greater protection for the right to vote."
JFK’s clarion call served as a significant catalyst for the Civil Rights Act, arguably the most transformational civil rights legislation after the Reconstruction and a crucial step in the realization of America’s promise, sought to ensure equality for recipients of federal funds, employers, places of public accommodation (like bus stations, restrooms and lunch counters) by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
As President Johnson astutely surmised, “There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.”
While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not written with Americans with disabilities in mind, there is no doubt it paved the way for future civil rights legislation like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that will be celebrating an anniversary of its own on April 5th. On that day 37 years ago in 1977, sit-ins were organized across the nation because nearly four years after the Rehabilitation Act was passed, no regulations had been enacted to enforce the law. Protests at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in San Francisco lasted 25 days until HEW Secretary Joseph Califano – who will be speaking at the Civil Rights Summit on Wednesday April 9 – signed the regulations. Later, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the subsequent ADA amendments passed in 2008, granted additional protections that owe a great debt to the pioneering example established by the Civil Rights Act.
The Civil Rights Act Summit organized by the LBJ Presidential Library provides a unique and rare opportunity to look back on our shared legacies while simultaneously allowing us in the present-day, right here, right now, to explore, predict and create a better future for everyone, including Americans with disabilities. Any meaningful observation of the Civil Rights Act would be lacking if it did not also recognize its extraordinary legislative legacy because as Dr. King noted, “the arc of history might be long but it bends toward justice.”
In reviewing the history of any marginalized group or any community, it would be safe to say disability has, at one time or another, probably been used in an attempt to justify unfair treatment and discrimination toward that group and to demean, dehumanize and devalue those identified as its members. For example, women were once widely regarded as weak, irrational or emotionally unstable. People of color were wantonly accused of being dangerous or deviant. The attribution of disability across numerous communities has been used to deny voting access, sell human beings as chattel and to sterilize and lobotomize without consent. These are fundamental civil rights American citizens have fought for and deserve to exercise freely and without discrimination.
The collective past, present and future of the disability and civil rights movements remain as inexorably linked now as they were in decades past. NCD urges the LBJ Library to infuse the rich history, diverse perspectives and valuable insights of the disability community throughout the upcoming Civil Rights Summit and calls for meaningful inclusion of the disability advocates in ongoing civil rights dialogues going forward.
“Nothing about us, without us” is more than a slogan. It is a guiding principle of all advocacy efforts regardless of the protected civil rights category so that everyone – especially people with disabilities - are included in achieving our common goals, values and ideals.