When the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. registered to vote in Georgia at age 18, he had to take a literacy test that was administered by a man who “could hardly read,” Moss recalled.
His father walked 18 miles one day to try to vote in LaGrange, Ga., only to be turned away. “Every time he reached the voting station, they told him, ’You have the wrong place,’” Moss said. “When he finally reached a station, they told him, ‘Boy, you are a little bit late. Poll just closed.’”
Moss was among the veterans of the civil rights movement who spoke Tuesday at a panel discussion on the legacy of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which helped end America’s version of apartheid. They spoke at the annual conference of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of Rainbow PUSH, opened the conversation.
The panel discussion included Moss, Jackson, Janice Mathis, an attorney with Rainbow PUSH, and the Revs. Calvin Morris and Nelson Rivers III. Morris, Moss and Jackson worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the height of the civil rights movement.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. The sweeping legislation took direct aim at long-standing Jim Crow laws that made black Americans in the South second-class citizens–outlawing segregation in public accommodations and in education and banning racial discrimination in employment.
While much progress has occurred since 1964—panelists cited the Voting Rights Act a year later—the civil rights veterans agreed that the nation has now entered a troubled time for racial equality.
“As of this hour, we have a post-Reconstruction Supreme Court,” said Moss, pastor emeritus of Cleveland’s Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. “We have a majority [in] Congress operating in 19th- Century ideology. Then and now, we have followed the challenges, but we still must fight on.”
Rivers, a representative of the NAACP, said it was the responsibility of those who lived through racial segregation to inspire today’s generation with their stories.
“1964 means nothing if there’s no one left to explain what the difference is in 2014,” he said. “If you don’t do it, who will do it?”
The panelists agreed that public education and criminal justice are still battlegrounds.
“People are still being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. We still have systems that put our young people in jeopardy,” said Morris, former executive director of the Community Renewal Society. “That kind of justice is still needed today.”
Intern Rosalie Chan contributed to this story.