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Celebrating July 2, America's other Independence Day

July 2, and the end of apartheid in America
July 2, and the end of apartheid in America 02:43

With Thursday's Supreme Court ruling striking down affirmative action in college admissions, it has been a landmark week. Commentary now from historian Mark Updegrove, president of the LBJ Foundation in Austin, about a similarly momentous day in American history:

Fifty-nine years ago today, legal apartheid in America came to an abrupt end. President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation from the East Room of the White House:

"I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 …. Let us close the springs of racial poison."

From the archives: LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act 07:17

Afterward, ours was a changed nation, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The back of Jim Crow, with its false promise of "separate but equal" public accommodations, was broken, as America fulfilled its most sacred ideal: "All men are created equal."

Since then, the Civil Rights Act has become as fundamental to our national identity as any of our founding documents, deeply rooted in the fabric of a nation that strives to be "more perfect" and to move ever forward.

In a deeply-divided America, where faith in government has ebbed, and affirmative action is under siege, it's worth reflecting on the fruition of the Civil Rights Act as a snapshot of our country at its best ...

A time when Martin Luther King and an army of non-violent warriors put their bodies on the line to expose the worst of bigotry and racial tyranny ...

When a bipartisan Congress – Democrats and Republicans alike – joined together to overcome a bloc of obstructionist Southern Democrats who staged the longest filibuster in Senate history, and force passage of the bill ...

And when a President put the weight of his office behind racial justice, dismissing adverse political consequences by responding, "What the hell's the presidency for?"

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Why did Johnson choose to sign the Civil Rights Act on July 2, instead of doing so symbolically on July 4, as Americans celebrated Independence Day? He wanted to sign the bill into law as soon as possible, which he did just hours after it was passed.

And that separate date makes sense. The signing of the Civil Rights Act deserved its own day. Because for many marginalized Americans, July 2 was Independence Day, a day when every citizen became equal under the law.

And that's something we should all celebrate.

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Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: Karen Brenner.

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