President John Kennedy did not know when he delivered his historic civil rights address on June 11, 1963, that he would not live to see what he had done. He well knew, though, that while America was facing a legal and moral crisis he needed to strike a steady tone and to point the way toward higher ground.
“This is not a sectional issue,” Kennedy said. “Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every state of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics.”
Only a year later -- July 2, 1964 -- President Lyndon Johnson signed a landmark civil rights act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin and ordering the end of racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public facilities. While lobbying for the bill, Johnson drew heavily on Kennedy’s legacy.
“No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory,” Johnson told Congress, “than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
Today, the 1964 Civil Rights Act remains the foundation on which we strive to assure equal rights and equal justice for all Americans. It provides critical protections against discrimination and disenfranchisement. Yet, despite all we have achieved, there is more work to do. We should seize on our opportunities to expand the legacy of inclusion, equality and justice that we have inherited.
I am proud to say that I am from Kansas, where we recently celebrated the 60 anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racial discrimination and segregation in our nation’s schools. I am also proud to support Attorney General Eric Holder and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in their work to broaden our commitment to civil rights.
Enforcing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a high priority for our office. Likewise, we have increased federal prosecution of human trafficking cases in Kansas, especially sex trafficking cases in which women and girls are subject to force, fraud or coercion to get them to work as prostitutes. We have refocused our immigration enforcement to prioritize the prosecution of business owners who knowingly hire undocumented workers, not just the undocumented workers they are attempting to exploit. And we are working with the Justice Department to re-evaluate mandatory minimum sentencing policies for certain low-level drug crimes and to bolster prevention and re-entry programs to deter crime and reduce recidivism.
We are working hard every day to build and maintain a system based on equal justice and equal rights that Americans respect and trust.
Barry Grissom is the United States Attorney for the District of Kansas.