Earlier this month, we as a nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Just minutes before putting pen to paper on that historic day, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on television to address the nation, articulating the law’s fundamental purpose: to create a better, more inclusive society for all Americans.
“Those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning,” he said in his address, going on to acknowledge the many leaders, both black and white, who worked tirelessly to get what he often referred to as “an American bill” onto his desk.
At the time, I was 5 years old and 3,000 miles away in southern California, doing the typical things 5-year-olds do. But, there were others older than me listening who took those words to heart in a way that would have a profound impact on my life. In the 1960s, the unified disability rights movement was just emerging, and its leaders learned a great deal from those who brought the Civil Rights Act to fruition.
Twenty-six years later, those leaders found themselves at the White House looking on as another president signed landmark civil rights legislation renewing and enlarging America’s ideal of equality — the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which was authorized by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, and closely modeled on the Civil Rights Act.
That moment I do remember well. By that time, I had become active in the independent living and disability rights movements in California, advocacy work that laid the foundation for my career going forward. Indeed, today, the ADA underpins all we do at the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Earlier this year, the LBJ Presidential Library in Texas held a summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. In President Obama’s speech at the event, he reflected on this continuing legacy, to both America at large and him personally:
Because of the Civil Rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody — not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos; and Asians and Native Americans; and gay Americans and Americans with a disability. They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that’s why I’m standing here today — because of those efforts, because of that legacy. And that means we’ve got a debt to pay.
On multiple levels, I too am where I am today because of that legacy. And as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy, I too am committed to paying it forward — to renewing and enlarging it — for future generations of Americans with disabilities, and all Americans.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.