By ELIYA AHMAD, age 12, and DAPHNE KNOUSE FRENZER, age 12
Introduction by KATIE SCHLECHTER, IndyKids Staff

Civil rights movement leaders Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King and their families lead the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, AL in 1965. PHOTO: Abernathy Family Photos
Civil rights movement leaders Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King and their families lead the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, AL in 1965. PHOTO: Abernathy Family Photos

In school, we learn about the famous Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 60s. We study the passionate activism of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. We read stories about famous acts of civil disobedience like the lunch counter sit-ins, where black patrons sat down to eat in “whites-only” restaurants and were arrested for refusing to leave. The courageous work of so many groups and individuals, celebrated and unknown, pushed our country to make incredible transformations. However, the struggle is far from over.

Today in 2014, 50 years after the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, much is still left to be done. Systems of racial inequality are expanding as public schools are closed and new prisons are opened. Economic inequality is rising as the minimum wage remains low and social safety nets like Medicaid and food stamps are threatened or cut. In many ways, the battles fought in the past share similar themes with challenges we face today.

Students from the Little Rock Nine shake New York Mayor Robert Wagner’s hand. They were the first African American students to enroll in Little Rock High Scool in Arkansas after Brown v. Board of Education. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Students from the Little Rock Nine shake New York Mayor Robert Wagner’s hand. They were the first African American students to enroll in Little Rock High Scool in Arkansas after Brown v. Board of Education. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Brown v. Board of Education THEN and The School-to-Prison Pipeline NOW

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education. The justices found that schools separated by race were inherently unequal. This violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which says, “No state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The ruling began a national trend toward racial integration.

A young activist participates in a rally to fight back against the school-to-prison pipeline, demanding education over incarceration. PHOTO: ACLU of Southern California
A young activist participates in a rally to fight back against the school-to-prison pipeline, demanding education over incarceration. PHOTO: ACLU of Southern California

Sixty years after the Brown v. Board decision, inequalities still exist in our nation’s schools. “Zero tolerance” policies that unnecessarily push students into the criminal justice system for violating school rules create a “school-to-prison pipeline.” Students routinely receive automatic and severe punishments, such as arrest and criminal charges, for minor offenses, like behavioral issues. Most of the students hurt by such policies are the poor and racial minorities, expanding inequality along racial and class lines.

 The Richmond 34, a group of university students participating in a sit-in at a lunch counter of a department store in Richmond, VA in 1960. They were arrested and charged with trespassing. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
The Richmond 34, a group of university students participating in a sit-in at a lunch counter of a department store in Richmond, VA in 1960. They were arrested and charged with trespassing.
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Desegregation THEN and Gentrification NOW

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, making it illegal to segregate public facilities and the workplace. While Brown v. Board intended to end segregation in schools, only 1.2 percent of public schools had been racially integrated by 1964. The Civil Rights Act helped to further integration nationally, not only in schools, but in public places, businesses, and voting booths. As a result, minorities—especially blacks—were able to participate more in civic life.

Today, segregation can be seen through the process of gentrification. Gentrification is when middle- and low-income residents, often in communities of color, are displaced from their homes by richer people and companies, due to the rising cost of real estate. As rents increase and people are forced to leave their neighborhoods, racial and economic segregation deepens and grows.

Since section 4b of the Voting Rights Act was struck down, numerous states have passed laws that will make it more difficult for people to vote, especially those in poor and minority communities. PHOTO: Grand Lake
Since section 4b of the Voting Rights Act was struck down, numerous states have passed laws that will make it more difficult for people to vote, especially those in poor and minority communities. PHOTO: Grand Lake

Voting Rights Act of 1965 THEN and Voter Suppression NOW

The Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to try to eliminate discrimination within the voting system. It states that it is illegal to prevent anyone from voting based on their race, and that inclusive materials (such as ballots in multiple languages) must be provided for people of language minorities. According to the ACLU, “By the end of 1965, 250,000 new black voters [were] registered.”

In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that section 4b of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. According to Chief Justice John G. Roberts, “our country has changed,” so it is no longer necessary. Since then, some states have tried to pass legislation that would restrict racial minorities and the poor from voting. In Texas, for example, a new law would enact strict rules for acceptable photo identification for voting. Some people believe this will increase discrimination by not allowing an equal chance for certain people to vote.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, old buildings are often demolished and replaced with luxury apartments that are too expensive for the communities that have lived there for generations. PHOTO: Alan Greig
In gentrifying neighborhoods, old buildings are often demolished and replaced with luxury apartments that are too expensive for the communities that have lived there for generations. PHOTO: Alan Greig

War on Poverty THEN and the War on the Poor NOW

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty: a series of actions meant to decrease the overall poverty rate in the United States. This included programs such as the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which gave work experience to less privileged youths. It also included the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and the Social Security Act of 1965, which gave the poor and elderly better access to food and healthcare. In the years after the act was passed, the nationwide poverty rate was at one of its lowest points in recent history.

Since the 1970s, economic inequality has grown dramatically in the United States. Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich recently went against his own political allies by saying, “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That, if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.” Not only do many people look down on poor people, but Republicans have tried to cut funding to Medicaid, and succeeded in cutting down the food stamp program.

Glossary of terms
Civil disobedience: refusing to follow unjust laws or practices as a method of peaceful political protest
Social safety nets: programs run by the government to prevent poor and vulnerable people from falling below a certain level of poverty. The United States has very limited social safety nets compared with other “developed” nations.
Inherently: naturally, permanently and inseparably
Displaced: to be pushed out of a location due to natural or social events or situations