Civil Rights Act changed life for all in Tampa Bay

Tampa, Florida -- The idea of all Americans being truly equal took one of its biggest steps 50 years ago today. That's when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That law transformed life for everyone -- black and white -- here in Tampa Bay.

The pictures and stories are now, thankfully, almost hard to believe. The Florida State Fair: split white and black. In courtrooms: whites sat on one side, others sat apart. Schools, restaurants, and hospitals were all segregated.

This was everyday life in Tampa Bay before the Civil Rights movement.

"We do know that we don't need the guards coming out to march kids to school anymore. That's behind us," said Carolyn Hepburn Collins, who leads the NAACP in Hillsborough County. "We don't have the separate books that we had, [they were] hand-me-down books."

Started by President John F. Kennedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was finished by President Lyndon Johnson. It outlawed discrimination based on what you look like, what you believe, where you're from, or whether you're a man or woman. It helped all Americans vote, and it ended racial segregation in schools, offices, and nearly every place where the public is allowed.

The Civil Rights Act gave people the tools to solve these problems, but it didn't just magically fix these deep rifts overnight.

For example, Hillsborough County took another seven years -- until 1971 -- to get a final plan in place to fully integrate its white and black students. And many people here in the South fought against the Act, both with lawsuits and intimidation.

Today, President Johnson's signature on the Civil Rights Act is seen as a turning point in American history, for all Americans.

But the NAACP's Dr. Collins says it's still a work in progress, for all of us.

"We have improved. But in that improving, we've allowed some things to occur that as a community we must work together to resolve," she told me.

"Otherwise, the school-to-prison pipeline and the lack of self-esteem for these young people -- and respect for themselves and others... is going to be getting worse and worse."


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