64@50: Student Reading Groups

Joseph S. Guzman

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prompted considerable reflection in law schools across the nation.[1] As well it should have. The human, political, and legal drama involved in its passage rivals few other pieces of legislation in American history.[2] When combined with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, these pieces of legislation marked the culmination of civil rights leaders’ efforts to actualize the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process for all Americans.[3] Yet despite the transformative nature of this legislation, it plays a minor role in the foundational law school curriculum. Instead, the achievements of the twentieth century civil rights movement are often taught through a series of Supreme Court cases spurred by admittedly brilliant appellate lawyers and legal activists who creatively strategized successful litigation tactics. No one can dismiss the magnitude of these individuals’ efforts. But often overlooked in this narrative is the role played by legislation, as well as the complex interplay of activists, policymakers, and interest groups who helped garner sufficient support to pass civil rights legislation in the face of obstinate opposition. To address these issues (and more), Columbia Law School students organized and led a seminar titled “64@50: The Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The 64@50 seminar took a multi-dimensional look at the 1964 Civil Rights Act, including the pre-Act history of civil rights legislation, the grassroots activism and cultural underpinnings that helped to mobilize support for the Act, the role of lawyers in transforming these popular movements and ideologies into actionable legislation, and the development of antidiscrimination law since this seminal statute. Finally, our study of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 informed our understanding of the potential for large-scale transformative legislation today.

The course’s methodology was as much a part of our educational experience as was the substantive content. Each session was organized by a student, who assigned readings and worked with our guest speaker to lead the discussion. Our guest speakers included scholars, practitioners, and activists, each of whom brought particular expertise to that week’s topic. Professor Kendall Thomas lectured on how church, music, and culture created a black imaginative politics that grounded the civil rights movement. With Professor Dorian Warren, we discussed the impact of Title VII and our generation’s current challenge of economic inequality. Professor Olati Johnson reminded us of the historical power of Title VI and administrative law in protecting equal access to quality education. Myrna Pérez strategized how to protect voting rights in light of Shelby County.[4] We attended a symposium on comprehensive immigration reform that was moderated by Professor Elora Mukherjee. With Professor Jamal Green, we stepped back and attempted to synthesize the historical constitutional significance of the Civil Rights Act. And at the end of it all, Professor Susan Sturm held a reflection session in her home, posing profound questions about the successes and failures of the Civil Rights Act, and the role of the law and lawyers in social movements.

The course was designed to achieve several methodological goals. First, by allowing law students to organize the syllabus and readings, the course was intended to create a sense of ownership over our law school education. Indeed, the group of about twenty participants attended regularly and participated actively. Second, the course was largely centered on the passage and impact of only the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By focusing on a single piece of legislation, we attempted to demonstrate the political, legal, and social efforts and compromises that are required to pass a bill. Finally, the course was designed to model a coalition building effort that expanded civil rights through legislation—a story too often overlooked in law school, where students and faculty are often more focused on the judicial branch than on the political branches of government.

Many of the modern civil rights battles are being fought in the courts instead of in Congress,[5] and the political polarization of Congress and the American people is at its highest since before World War II.[6] In such a world, it might appear excusable to dismiss legislation as a realistic means to advance civil rights. But the story of the Civil Rights Act reminds us that our democratic branches of government can act to expand rights, even in the face of rampant partisanship and after decades of failed attempts. In fact, legislation may be the only effective solution to certain problems.[7] Our study of the Civil Rights Act demonstrated that passing transformative legislation requires leaders who can build consensus, organize political movements, compromise, and courageously imagine new solutions to enduring challenges—skills not often emphasized in traditional law school pedagogy. The 64@50 reading group attempted to fill that gap by empowering students to more fully participate in their educational experience.


[1] See, e.g., Yale Law Journal, Volume 123, Number 8, (symposium issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the publication of Bruce Ackerman, We the People Volume 3: The Civil Rights Revolution), and Stanford Law Review, Symposium 2014: The Civil Rights Act at Fifty. Other examples included law-school sponsored speakers and events such as Boston University School of Law, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 at 50: Past, Present & Future and Columbia Law School’s 64@50 hashtag campaign. The Anniversary also demanded significant attention from political leaders, see, e.g., The Civil Rights Summit: We Shall Overcome, with speeches by President Barack Obama and former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

[2] See, e.g., Robert D. Loevy, The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Passage of the Law that Ended Racial Segregation (1997); Harvard S. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (1978); Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy 3–17 (2011); Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of The Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (1984); Sheryll D. Cashin, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Coalition Politics, 49 St. Louis U. L.J. 1029 (2005); Robert Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (2003).

[3] Bruce Ackerman, We The People Volume 3: The Civil Rights Revolution (2014).

[4] Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013).

[5] See, e.g., U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, 2688 (2013); DeBoer v. Snyder, 772 F.3d 388 (6th Cir. 2014), cert. granted, (135 S.Ct. 1041); Inclusive Communities Project v. Texas Dept. Housing & Community Affairs, 747 F.3d 275 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. granted, (135 S.Ct. 46).

[6] Drew DeSilver, Partisan Polarization, in Congress and Among Public, is Greater than Ever, Pew Research Center (July 17, 2013), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/07/17/partisan-polarization-in-congress-and-among-public-is-greater-than-ever/. See also Norman J. Ornstein, et al., Vital Statistics on Congress Data on the U.S. Congress- A Joint Effort from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings (July 2013), http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2013/07/vital-statistics-congress-mann-ornstein.

[7] One obvious example currently in the news is comprehensive immigration reform and the ongoing debate about the limits of presidential authority in this area. See, e.g., The Department of Homeland Security’s Authority to Prioritize Removal of Certain Aliens Unlawfully Present in the United States and to Defer Removal of Others, 38 Op. O.L.C. 25 (2014).