Social justice advocates are marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The future of civil rights was the topic of a regional conference in Springfield, Massachusetts.
More than 500 people representing housing, civil rights, legal and public health agencies and organizations from the New England states and New York took part in the two- day conference last week to share information and network. Jamie Williamson, Chair of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, said conference participants realize it is a critical time for civil rights in the nation’s history.
" We have become a nation that is torn in two. We have become very polarized and if you look at 1964 that is exactly what was happening then."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned all forms of racial discrimination and put an end to institutional segregation at such places as lunch counters, motels, and public transportation. Williamson said discrimination is more covert today.
" Take a look at your school systems. We have more segregation happening now than in 1968. As far as we've come in some areas we are devoid in other areas."
Workshops and panel discussions at the conference covered a number of topics including civil rights enforcement, race-based disparities in health care and access to social media.
Employment discrimination complaints dominate the civil rights work of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Most of the complaints are brought on the basis of disabilities, not race.
John Fisher of HAPHousing, the region’s largest nonprofit developer of affordable housing, said there is still a big problem with housing discrimination.
"Prejudice against gay people. Prejudice against people with rental subsidies. It is illegal to discriminate against people with rental subsidies, but probably half the time anyone calls with a Section 8 voucher they will be discouraged ( from renting) in one way or another."
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who is in charge of enforcing federal civil rights laws in Massachusetts, said her office recently brought suit against H&R Block alleging the tax preparer’s website is not accessible to many people with disabilities. She said her office is also focusing attention on human trafficking.
Ortiz, who is the first Hispanic and first woman to serve as U.S Attorney in Massachusetts, reflected on how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided opportunities.
" I have certainly benefited from those opportunities. At the end of the day it is what you do with the opportunities. It has been through hard work and commitment and dedication to the work I've done over my 30- year career that I am where I am today."
Ortiz said racism remains a problem in the U.S. and more must be done to combat it.