CBS News asked noted figures in the arts, business and politics about their experience in today's civil rights movement, or about figures who inspired them in their activism.
Herman Cain, businessman, former Republican presidential candidate
Is there something that you'd like to share about your personal connection to civil rights issues?
It took more than 200 years for this nation to add a punctuation to the civil rights inherent in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." This would normally imply all rights, all access, and all opportunities, but for too long, too many men did not embrace the full meaning of that ideal.
Throughout the history of this country many people looked for loopholes in the ideal and the laws according to the Constitution, because their hearts were not ready to do what their minds knew was right. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 closed all remaining loopholes, and opportunities for all were undeniable.
The CRA did not change hearts. This did not mean it would be easy for everyone and all institutions to embrace the full meaning of the law; it just meant that any attempts to deny equal opportunities or access would be met with the full force of the law and our system of justice. And so, the post-civil rights struggle began.
Unfortunately, some people confuse the pre-struggle with the post-struggle. The pre-struggle was about getting there. The post-struggle is about what you are going to do now. People confuse equal opportunities with equal results. Equal results cannot be legislated, they must be earned. The force of the law is to ensure a level playing field for all who choose to compete in the arena of success and failure.
There is no guarantee.
I graduated from high school in 1963 and from college in 1967. The CRA of 1964 did not mean that doors would be automatically opened to me and millions of blacks entering the work force looking for careers; it meant that doors could not be shut in our faces. It might have still happened in instances in the dark of night, but not in the light of day and through the lens of a once-objective media.
During that early phase of the CRA of 1964, many of us did not focus on what might have been going on in secret; our focus was on the opportunities at hand. Over time, one's superior performance would transcend the color of one's skin.
Let's be clear: There were times when I was intentionally by-passed or overlooked for an opportunity because of the color of my skin, and I knew it. But I was not litigious by nature. My motivation was to always keep moving forward despite the odds, which ultimately paid its rewards. It wasn't easy, but it was the path I chose.
I am not critical of those who may have chosen a more confrontational or low-risk path during the early days of equal opportunities, because each person must pursue their ambitions at their pace. But those who have achieved more success have done so at greater risk, and often greater personal sacrifices.
Most of the barriers to success in the early days of the CRA are gone. But we will always have some biases in the hearts and minds of some people no matter how minimal. It's human nature. It's easy to claim color bias, gender bias, size bias, or any other kind of bias if you are looking for it, but most successful people choose to look for superior performance in themselves and others.
Equal opportunity is a moving target; it's always moving forward. The driving factors for success are attitude, what you choose to focus on, and how hard and long you are willing to work. We owe a lot to the struggles that led up to the passage of the CRA of 1964, and to those who have embraced the law as just another part of our culture. Equal opportunity today is the rule, rather than the exception.
We must remember history but not be chained to it. The CRA of 1964 gave all of us a springboard into the future of what can be, instead of just what was.
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