WASHINGTON – The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Michael Hussey,an education and exhibit specialist at the National Archives,have at least one thing in common. They both turn 50 this year.
“This is one of my absolute favorite documents because it’s so important in our progress as a nation towards a greater equality and justice,” Hussey said.
Hussey re-read the 29-page document in preparation for its move to a new permanent exhibit in the archives called “Records of Rights.” Members of the press descended to the basement of the building that also houses the Constitution and Declaration of Independence on Tuesday to photograph pages of the document before the first page and the signature page go on display Wednesday.
“It’s breathtaking,actually,if you read just what change at least on paper was being affected,” Hussey said.
To the surprise of his fellow Southern Democrats,President Lyndon B. Johnson championed the bill following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.
On July 2,1964,Johnson signed the bill to protect voting rights and desegregate hotels,restaurants and schools. The act also included sex as a protected class.
“All of this is the culmination of generations of struggle,by African Americans,by allies,to really try and to make the promise of the Constitution to form a more perfect union a reality,” Hussey said.
Despite the new law’s sweep,Congress returned to the issue the next year,passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965,after some states violently resisted the provisions in the 1964 law.
Before the document could become part of the exhibit,Exhibits Conservator Terry Boone gave it a checkup. She looked over the condition of the paper and ink and helped determine how to display it.
“Since it’s a 1964 document,it’s in pretty good shape,” Boone said.
Despite its good condition,the signature page of the act can only be shown for three months every 10 years to preserve the ink and keep it within its “light budget.” A facsimile of the page will replace the original July 13.
Boone and her colleagues are often on a tight schedule,and she said they often have more to do to evaluate and preserve documents than they can get done.
“Most of us don’t have time to read the records,but you’re aware of the significance of it while you’re handling it,” Boone said.
Hussey said he hopes visitors also realize the significance of the “iconic” document. Its addition to the exhibit will be a chance to remember the accomplishments of another generation and see how changes occur at a legislative level.
“If you take for granted that anyone can go into any restaurant regardless of their race,sex or national origin,this is a reminder that there was a time that that needed to be stated and enforced by federal law,” Hussey said.
Reach Reporter Kate Winkle at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.