The Journal of Law and Public Interest hosted a symposium at University of Richmond's T.C. Williams School of Law, which celebrated and discussed the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act .

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal statute that was written to enforce the right to vote; provide relief against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in public places; prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs; and establish an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“The [Civil Rights Act] was initially successful because of the very institutional stability that Washington lacks now," said Julian Hayter, professor of leadership studies. “Congress, the courts and the executive branch, for reasons like constitutional nullification in the South and the long-standing legacy of bigotry in the South, were committed to non-discrimination legislation.”

Approximately 100 students, faculty and members of the Richmond community attended the event Sept. 18, which took place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

The symposium consisted of two panel discussions and presentations from two speakers. The first panel focused on the political and legal context in which the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, and the second panel considered steps to take today in order to fully realize universal civil rights in the United States.

Katy Groover and Carley Wych, JOLPI editors, said they decided to focus on the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act for the journal’s annual symposium on a suggestion from Wendy Perdue, dean of the law school. The historical nature of the Civil Rights Act expanded the range of disciplines from which they recruited symposium participants.

“A lot of symposiums here at the law school tend to just use legal practitioners,” Wych said. “But we thought, especially here at the university, we have such a wealth of historians. We have professors from Virginia Commonwealth [University], and then we had our historical politicians here, and we thought that would be an interesting mix."

Groover said the current national focus on civil rights in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, made the symposium topic more relevant today.

“When you turn on the TV there are civil rights issues happening all around us, and I remember thinking about a month ago, ‘Wow, I wish our symposium was this week because here we are talking about Ferguson, and we’re talking about civil rights issues, right now, right here,’” Groover said.

Chai Feldblum, EEOC commissioner, delivered the symposium’s keynote address, and pushed the conversation beyond race.

“[Feldblum] was able to talk about not only the creation of the EEOC, which came out of the Civil Rights Act, but also the gender implications that are still very much in play,” Groover said.

Participants on the second panel were asked what provisions they would include if they were to write a second Civil Rights Act to remind attendees that the struggle for equality is not over.

Andrea Simpson, professor of political science, said she would limit the government’s legal ability to infringe on civil rights and address deprivations of rights that occur in the prison system.

“I would include something that resolves this erosion of our civil liberties and rights in the post-9/11 age – in an age of fear and fear of terrorism,” Simpson said. “And secondly, I would also apply civil rights to those snared in the web of the prison-industrial complex, which I define as a complex array of public and private systems that have turned what was a rehabilitative process into a profit-motivated endeavor that denies citizens life, liberty and the pursuit of personal fulfillment.”

Spotlight speaker Henry L. Marsh III, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and former Virginia state senator, said he was concerned about apathetic attitudes toward civil rights in some youth.

“Young people today have a chance of being sent to war to be killed, they have all kinds of problems... They should be interested in seeing the justice system work,” Marsh said. “And I don’t blame the students themselves. I blame us because we have the means of stimulating knowledge, and if we don’t do it, it’s our responsibility.”

Contact reporter Jesse Siebentritt at jesse.siebentritt@richmond.edu