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News from EPI Civil Rights Act of 1964 Shows the Importance of Local and Grassroots Efforts in Precipitating Large-Scale Change

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On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legal segregation of public accommodations and transportation, a new paper from the Economic Policy Institute’s Unfinished March project demonstrates the importance of local and grassroots efforts in precipitating large-scale national change. In Looking Back on the Fight for Equal Access to Public Accommodations, Alton Hornsby, Jr. presents a timeline and analysis of some of the pivotal demonstrations for the right to equal access to public accommodations preceding the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  These included the sit-in movement, the economic boycotts, and the transportation boycotts that began in the late 1940s and continued through the 1960s. Hornsby details how the disruption of everyday operations for businesses across the country catalyzed national change and explains why the importance of local and grassroots efforts in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is instructive in the pursuit of the remaining unmet economic goals of the March on Washington. These include the demands for decent housing, adequate and integrated education, a federal jobs program for full employment, and a national minimum wage of over $13 an hour in today’s dollars.

“As we reflect on the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and what it accomplished, it is important to note the many years of local and grassroots actions and countless demonstrations that preceded it,” said Hornsby “That the guarantee of equal access to public accommodations did not occur overnight but instead was the culmination of a movement spanning generations and propelled by countless victories and defeats gives us hope as we strive to achieve the remaining and ever critical economic goals of the March on Washington.”

“The recent fast-food worker strikes have not only prompted more cities and states to put raising the minimum wages on their political agenda, but they have reminded us of the effectiveness of on-the-ground demonstrations,” said Valerie Wilson, director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy. “The framers of March on Washington created a successful template that activists continue to draw from to raise public awareness of the need to raise the wages of all working families.”

This paper continues the Economic Policy Institute project The Unfinished March, which reviews America’s civil rights successes as well as the significant amount of civil rights work that remains to be done. Each report addresses a specific civil rights goal, the progress that has or has not been made, and, if necessary, the policy measures needed to fully realize the goal.