The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “a monumental step forward” for human dignity, but continued work is necessary to fight the “destructive influence of racism,” said the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference. “As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 this year, I join together with my brother bishops in recalling the heroic history of that achievement,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky. said in a statement this month. “We honor the many civic, business, and religious leaders, students, laborers, educators and all others of good will who courageously stood up for racial justice against bigotry, violence, ignorance, and fear.” “We remember with deep gratitude the countless personal sacrifices they made, sacrifices that all too often included hardship, violence, and even death,” he said. “We honor the victory they won after such a long and sustained civil and legislative struggle.” The 1964 federal act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, provided more federal protection for voting rights and barred discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in government, in employment, in public services and in public accommodations. The archbishop said the 1964 act “offered an olive branch of hope for equal treatment and opportunities for education, employment, and fuller participation in society” and “promised a better quality of life for millions of Americans who had been excluded from the privileges of citizenship based on race, color, national origin, and other grounds.” The U.S. bishops have been encouraging commemorations of the 50th anniversary of milestones in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Over the next year, the bishops’ conference Subcommittee on African-American Affairs will remember major milestones and release blog posts, video clips and suggestions to engage the Catholic community during the commemorations. Archbishop Kurtz said the 1964 Civil Rights Act “championed human dignity and provided legal protections that began to transform communities around the country.” The archbishop voiced gratitude for “the vital contributions of the faith community” in the Civil Rights Movement. He especially mentioned “the special and untiring contributions” of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in 1968. “Propelled by their values and beliefs, members of different faiths and denominations, including Catholics, insisted that racial justice in the United States was an imperative, no longer to be ignored,” Archbishop Kurtz continued. “Inspired by Holy Scripture, fortified by prayer and spiritual music, and sustained by a love for Christ, a number of Christians worked with and for the poor and marginalized, notably in the segregated South.” Archbishop Kurtz said that the Catholic bishops “repeatedly spoke against racism” in statements in 1943, 1958 and 1963. Many bishops worked to desegregate Catholic schools, hospitals and other institutions, “clearly signaling by their words and actions that racial discrimination has no place in the Church or in society.” The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1979 document “Pastoral Letter on Racism” declared that racism is “a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.” Archbishop Kurtz said that the Church must “continue to insist on the dignity of all persons and the very real opportunity available to each of us, to have a personal encounter with Christ and to be instruments of his healing, love, and truth.” He said that the Gospel requires “ongoing personal and social transformation.” “Respecting the dignity of each person is paramount as we seek to spread the beauty of God’s truth throughout our world,” he continued. The 1964 Civil Rights Act in itself “did not eradicate the legacy of slavery, racial discrimination and injustice,” the archbishop cautioned. “In fact, there are reminders across our nation today that the embers of racial discrimination still smolder. This evil infects institutions, laws, and systems, and it harms our brothers and sisters.” “We must therefore continue to work against the destructive influence of racism on families, religious and civil communities, employment, the prison system, housing, hunger, educational achievement, and mental health,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
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