It was a struggle in which violence was met with non-violence, racist hate with messages and songs of love. And it was only after decades of marches, protests and rallies against segregation, discrimination and lynchings that the civil rights movement succeeded in opening (in historian Taylor Branch's words) "the stubborn gates to freedom."
At a symposium in New York City Thursday night presented by CBS Live Experiences, newsmakers from the worlds of politics, entertainment and sports discussed the fight for civil rights and the continuing struggle for equality (including issues of race, gender and LGBT rights today), in a webcast titled, "CBS News: 50 Years Later, Civil Rights."
"America is a much better place than it was when we were born into it," said activist, actor and singer Harry Belafonte. "Civil consideration does the nation proud."
The panel discussion marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion or sex. It was passed in 1964 despite a long history of filibusters and Congressional maneuvers attempting to doom it -- incredibly, noted host Bob Schieffer, in the middle of an election year.
Branch remarked, "The Chairman of the House Rules Committee stood up and said, 'You are about to vote on a monstrous instrument of oppression on all the American people.' It was voted through anyhow, because it was so fundamental."
Speaking of what the civil rights movement has accomplished, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said, "It's a different America. We're not quite there yet, but it's different, and it's better."
President Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act came on the heels of the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, who went missing while trying to register blacks to vote. The bodies of James Chaney (an African American) and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (two Northern whites) were found several weeks later.
The hunt for the missing men (as documented in the 1964 CBS News special report, "The Search in Mississippi") riveted the nation, forcing a national conversation on segregation.
The three men had been volunteers in the "Freedom Summer" project, in which hundreds of volunteers from other states traveled to Mississippi, where only 16,000 African Americans were registered to vote.
Stephen Schwerner said that political activism was typical for his brother, Michael Schwerner. "Most of the people in our family were in CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] and involved in a variety of demonstrations and various activities. It was after the bombing in Birmingham that Micky and his wife, Rita, decided they wanted to go South, and so they went to Mississippi."
David Goodman said the decision of his brother, Andrew, to participate in Freedom Summer wasn't complicated: "He wasn't very political, but he viewed things as fair and unfair. He heard that if you were black in Mississippi you couldn't vote. And he said that wasn't fair."
Goodman was only 20 years old when he left to go South. "He had to get my mother's permission to go," David said.
Julia Chaney Moss said that when her brother, James Chaney, was named as one of the three missing civil rights workers, their mother was fired. "She worked in a bakery and she got to work one morning, and she was told, 'You're that Chaney's boy mama -- you no longer work here.'"
Schwerner said the important aspect regarding the response to the three men's disappearance and murder was that there were whites involved. "If two of the three weren't white, then it probably wouldn't have made news, if it were only Jim or if it were three black people," he said. "Black people in Mississippi had been killed for years, and with the exception of Medgar Evers, it had never made the paper. It had never made network news. People working for civil rights was something that the federal government didn't seem to care about, and the news media didn't care by and large.
"It's sad to say, but that's what was necessary to bring pressure to the state and federal governments."
The Schwerner family asked that Mickey be buried next to his friend, but it was not allowed, because cemeteries -- as was the case with many things in the South -- were segregated.
The South of Jim Crow
Blacks in segregated Mississippi, said Taylor Branch, were up against "a political order that was founded on racial hierarchy. It wasn't only in laws; it was in [the] state constitution. [Blacks] had no place in politics, no newspapers, no money, no power -- the law said they didn't count."
"Growing up in rural Alabama during the '40s and the '50s," said Rep. Lewis, "I saw the signs that said 'White men,' 'Colored men,' 'White women,' 'Colored women.' And I would ask my parents, grandparents, 'Why?' They said, 'That's the way it is.'"
And their advice to the young John Lewis? "Don't get in trouble."
But as a young man Lewis would meet Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and it changed his life. Joining the Nashville Nonviolent Workshop and the "Freedom Rides," Lewis became a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
"I went off to school and I got in trouble -- GOOD trouble, NECESSARY trouble," Lewis told Schieffer.
Lewis said he and other Freedom Riders who operated under the tenets of non-violence engaged in role-playing exercises in order to steel themselves for the anticipated hatred and brutality. "We did social dramas -- you're sitting there and someone would come and spit on you, put a cigarette down your back, pour hot water, hot coffee, pull you off the lunch counter. But we became committed to peace, love, non-violence, and we were prepared to die for what we believed."
Lewis, who himself had suffered numerous bloody beatings while marching for equality, said of the disappearance of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, "It was the saddest and darkest moment of my life. I had traveled all over recruiting young men, and when these three were missing, some of us went on a search. It was difficult for young people, difficult for the movement, and I still don't understand 50 years later how we could be so vicious to our fellow citizens.
"I think these three men must be looked upon as the founding fathers of a new America."
Civil rights today
For the current generation, panelists said that educating young people about the civil rights struggles of the past, and what price was paid in order to gain equality, is necessary,
"We make these anniversaries, but we're getting older and the [younger] people seem to have other things on their mind," said actress and activist Whoopi Goldberg. "I don't think they understand the cost of all of our freedoms, and that cost was deep. People died, people were hosed with water. And until we re-educate this new generation as to what that really meant, I'm concerned about us going forward."
"Freedom is not handed to you; you have to work for it," said attorney Evan Wolfson, founder of the same-sex marriage advocacy group, Freedom to Marry. "But I take inspiration that . . . we can do this work, it's been done before, it has to be re-done and continued.
"There are legal barriers, economic barriers, real obstacles in peoples' path, and we have to dismantle and overcome them," said Wolfson. "But in terms of making sure law, government and society are on our side, we have to make the experience real. It's not enough to just change the law, there's tremendous work of overcoming barriers and bringing it to people in this country so we can all be part of the 'more perfect union' we are promised."
Jason Collins, the first openly-gay NBA player, described the turning point for him, which came during a league lockout, when he was forced to look at his life after a basketball career. When a trainer of his in Los Angeles created an "It Gets Better" video, "I reached out to him and said the words for the first time, 'I'm gay,'" Collins said.
He said having the love and support of family and friends ("which isn't always the case") made him feel ready to come out. "Didn't know what to expect, but I still wanted to play basketball. I was tired of having the CIA cover story. I wanted to be the one that outs myself, tell it to the world."
"Are you glad you did?" asked Schieffer.
"Of course!" My life is so much better. . . honest, living an open life. Having a positive effect on other people's lives. I want to affect my nieces and nephews (who are biracial) so that civil rights is an equal playing field for them."
To change attitudes about discrimination required the nation to look squarely in the mirror, said CBS Sports commentator Jim Brown, and judge what it saw on the basis of love and notions of justice. "It wasn't until we saw innocent women and children and men being beaten, shot -- when America had the mirror shown on itself [and saw] man's inhumanity to man -- I think that's when things changed."
He quoted Teddy Roosevelt who'd said, "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."
"We have a lot of menaces out there because we're lacking in moral fiber. Kids are taught racist attitudes. Make no mistake -- for my forefathers and beyond -- education is the foundation we have to build upon," said Brown.
Actress and activist Rosie Perez said that for her, growing up, education was key to leveling the playing field. "Someone told me if you studied hard in America you can do anything. Sometimes I thought I was doing everything right, but still I was being faced with this hate, simply because of things I can't (and don't) want to change.
"I had so many things stacked up against me. I was a Latino poor woman -- triple threat!"
"Young people don't understand what civil rights activists went through, and that comes down to education," said Perez.
Goldberg, who is a co-host on "The View," said, "I sit in a very bizarre position: I hear both sides of the stories and have to give an opinion, and one of the things that scares me more than anything about where we are is the idea of 'fact' has seemed to disappear. People don't need facts. When I grew up, reporters couldn't say anything unless they could back it up."
Wolfson added, "What moves people isn't facts alone, it's truth, and there are ways of communicating truth -- authenticity, emotion. Part of the reason we've seen progress is because we have found a language to communicate with non-gays who gay people are: shared values of love, family, protecting your loved ones, contributing to society.
"I think the power of what has happened with regard to gays is we were able to break through noise and silence and make a connection, and our challenge is on so many fronts America is not where it needs to be. Break through clutter and noise and get back to stories that connect with people."
Belafonte said there is much in the nation that is askew, notably America's incarceration system.
"The prison system is unfair, mostly male, poor, black. We are perhaps building more prison cells than schools. Children are being incarcerated. The prison system has become part of the stock market and private sector," he said.
He also rued that Americans do not exercise their hard-fought right to vote. "We abuse that right" by not voting, Belafonte said.
Among current hot-button issues, the name of the Washington Redskins -- criticized by Native Americans -- was brought up. Brown said, "If in fact the name is offensive, then do the right thing and change the name."
He said segregation was tolerated for a long time because "that's just the way it was," until there was a demand for change. Using the excuse of cultural tradition in the case of the football team's name "holds no basis or substance to me. Do the right thing."
"I believe that America has not been able to overcome its deep-rooted relationships to race," said Belafonte. "Europeans came here looking for freedom; they brought with them their prejudices and alienation.
"They saw race as central to defining those whom they met and treated as inferior. People of color were required to adopt culture, religion of Europe, led to believe their culture was inferior. I don't think the human being will overcome the relationship to racial prejudice. Eventually we might all blend into one place, and color will become irrelevant."
"As long as we don't have education," said Belafonte, "we will have a scapegoat and that might be race. We don't want to face it."
Schieffer asked if whites should be afraid about demands for equality from others.
"They should let go of the fear," said Perez. "I don't want to hear about the hate. The fear needs to go away. I come from a place of love and there's no reason to fear me. Things are changing and you better jump on the train!"
Lewis ended the evening on an uplifting note: "I think in this country we're going to lay down the vision and create a society at peace with itself. As a people, as a nation, we will get there. Maybe we'll emerge as a model.
"Never lose hope," he said. "Be hopeful and optimistic."
In closing, Schieffer quoted Hubert Humphrey's statement that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was not only a significant domestic achievement, but the most important foreign policy of the decade -- not because it had anything to do with foreign policy, but because it told the rest of the world what kind of people we are.
"In this ever more dangerous world, where America still leads, we still lead best by example," said Schieffer. "That is when we exert the most influence. How we treat one other is part of that example."