Forty years after President Johnson declared a War on Poverty and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, 108 years after Plessy v. Ferguson, and 141 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a Black child still lacks a fair chance to live, learn, thrive, and contribute in America. Our nation’s doors of economic and educational opportunity still have not opened to all of God’s children who are Black, Brown, white, Native and Asian American, and poor.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed under the administration of President Johnson, was and continues to be the most comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation passed in our nation’s history. It specifically prohibits racial discrimination in voting, education, and public facilities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to the Jim Crow laws in the South by prohibiting segregation in pools, hotels, public schools, public libraries, restaurants, and employment.

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, significant gains have been made in protecting the civil rights of minorities, women, children, the elderly and disabled, and in alleviating poverty, extending health care and other essential protections. Tens of billions of dollars have been invested in children’s Head Start, health care, education and child care programs. But so much more remains to be done.

The strong Black traditions of family, and the unyielding quest for economic justice have been undermined by our nation’s choices not to invest adequately in critical services for all children. America’s current economic and education systems inhibit healthy child development and family stability. It is time to change the priorities of our nation’s leaders who refuse to end child poverty and illiteracy in order to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. It’s time to challenge leaders who choose to spend almost three times as much per prisoner as per public school pupil.

In 2004, it is morally and economically indefensible that:

• Black children are more likely to be sick because they are more likely to be poor. They are more likely than white children to have no regular source of health care, to have an unmet medical need, to have delayed medical care, and to have had no dental visits in two or more years.

• Two out of five Black babies today are born into poverty and face a losing struggle to escape poverty throughout childhood. Black families are more than twice as likely as white families to live in overcrowded housing. Black fathers are twice as likely as white fathers to be unemployed, and when Black men find work, they bring home $162 a week less than white men. Even when both Black parents work, they earn about 10 percent less than a white family.

• A Black preschool child is three times as likely to depend solely on a mother’s earnings. Because the Black woman still faces discrimination as a Black and as a woman, she is the lowest paid among workers, and her female-headed family is among the poorest in the nation.

• A Black child’s mother is more likely to go out to work sooner, to work longer hours, and to make less money than a white child’s mother. A Black child is seven times as likely as a white child to be on welfare.

• One out of every three Black children attends a school with 90 percent or more minority enrollment, and a Black child is more than twice as likely as a white child to be suspended, expelled, or given corporal punishment. A Black child is more likely than a white child to drop out of school. The longer a Black child is in school, the further he or she falls behind.

• A Black youth is twice as likely as a white youth to be unemployed. A Black student who graduates from high school has a greater chance of being unemployed than a white student who dropped out of elementary school.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of legislation and a turning point in America’s long and hard journey from slavery to true freedom. It spawned huge changes in many aspects of American life, but the struggle continues. The most urgent challenges of our time are still ending child poverty and inequality of opportunity. We must not turn back the clock of national progress and we must resist efforts to eliminate, cut, freeze, or block grant child and family programs or weaken them through regulation and non-enforcement.

Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. This article is excerpted from a press statement issued July 2, the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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