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Blog: On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964


Location: Washington, DC

I was not yet born when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but like so many of my generation, I am a product of that important legislation. And this afternoon in New Orleans, I had the great privilege of celebrating the 50th anniversary of that historic moment with Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, whose ancestors played a key role in the progress of American civil rights.

Homer Plessy was arrested in New Orleans in 1892 for riding in the White-only car of an East Louisiana Railroad train. Many of us are familiar with Rosa Parks and segregated bus seating, and we're familiar with the abhorrent "separate but equal" principle established by the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson, but not as many people know that Plessy also involved segregated transportation.

That unfortunate decision stood for decades until Brown v Board of Education in 1954 and, eventually, the Civil Rights Act we celebrate today.

Today, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of Homer Plessy and Judge John Howard Ferguson, jointly operate the Plessy And Ferguson Foundation, which works "to create new and innovative ways to teach the history of Civil Rights through understanding their ancestor's historic case and its effect on the American conscience."

Just as they have carried forward the legacy they share, I feel like many of us--including myself--have an obligation to carry forward the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement wherever we can.

For me one of those areas is transportation, because in many places, the injustice of an earlier time is still reflected in where our roads, rails, and transit systems cut through and connect.

Railroads have created communities located on what are called, the wrong side of the tracks. And highway projects segregated neighborhoods, plowing through underserved neighborhoods and communities, dividing low income residents from economic opportunity.

For example, before I was born, a highway loop was built that cut off my neighborhood in Charlotte from the business district. That highway segregated my community from opportunity.

But, by and large, since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we have made great strides in transforming our transportation system.

At DOT, we're helping people in poorer neighborhoods --like the Crenshaw corridor in L.A.-- reach better schools and jobs with new transit systems. In Columbus, Ohio, we helped cap a highway to reconnect a low-income community with the central business district. And DOT's work with disadvantaged businesses (DBEs) is letting more Americans bring their ideas to the table and participate in the building of our country.

We've worked hard to ensure that America's transportation system is increasingly accessible and safe for all of us, whether we walk, drive, bicycle, or use a wheelchair.

On this 50th anniversary of President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this Department remains dedicated to building that legacy of equality and fairness into our nation's transportation. We've been doing it since the same President Johnson signed the bill creating DOT, and we'll continue doing it for the next half century and beyond.

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