BALTIMORE – For President Lyndon Johnson (search) and the mostly white congressional majority he helped assemble, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (search) was a triumphant step toward racial justice. In Carolyn Mattocks' American history classes, the act's legacy is not so simple.
"The civil rights movement was a wonderful movement, but we as a people did not take it as far as we should have," said Mattocks, 35, who teaches adult students at inner-city Baltimore's predominantly black Sojourner-Douglass College.
"There's still unfinished business," Mattocks said, referring to persistent social inequities and divided black leadership. "There's a duty that we as a younger generation have -- to finish that business."
By any measure, the Civil Rights Act was momentous. Signed by Johnson on July 2, 1964, after a record two-month filibuster by embittered Southern senators, the act's key provisions banned segregation in any facility offering public services and outlawed discrimination in hiring.
"Together, those two provisions led to a veritable sea change in the way Americans conducted their lives," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Henderson was a high school student in Washington, D.C., when the act was passed. He encountered segregation in the capital firsthand as a boy, and recalls help-wanted ads in the newspapers that specified whether blacks or whites should apply.
"The little indignities of legal segregation really gnawed away at how you saw yourself and how you saw American democracy," Henderson said. "The Civil Rights Act had a profoundly transformative effect, especially in the workplace -- it's now the place most Americans encounter people of different races and ethnicities."
In the ensuing four decades, black Americans have made tremendous strides. Their poverty rate has dropped by nearly half; rates of high school graduation and home ownership have soared; blacks preside over prestigious universities, major corporations, the State Department and the American Bar Association.
However, glaring gaps remain. A recent National Urban League (search) report said black Americans' earning power is only 73 percent of whites and their life expectancy is six years less. Predominantly black public schools are often badly underfunded, compared to mostly white schools, and black incarceration rates are higher now than in 1964.
According to one recent study in the American Sociological Review, more young black men have done time in prison than have served in the military or earned a college degree. Nationally, about 13 percent of black men -- 1.4 million in all -- are ineligible to vote because of criminal records.
"I should have thought that everyone, even down to ex-felons, would be able to realize the American dream, but that's not true," said Clayton Guyton, who assists ex-offenders at Baltimore's Rose Street Community Center. "Once they go to prison, it's almost impossible for them to re-enter society."
The Civil Rights Act resulted from years of relentless campaigning by civil leaders, whose protest marches in the South often provoked brutal responses from the defenders of segregation.
President John F. Kennedy, who earlier in his political career had sometimes been cautious on racial issues, addressed Congress in June 1963 to urge passage of a sweeping civil rights bill. Martin Luther King Jr. led a historic march in Washington in August.
After Kennedy's assassination that November, Johnson took up the cause -- a Texan willing to break with many of his fellow Southerners to push through an even bolder version of the bill.
Among the opponents was Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., now the chamber's longest-serving member. Byrd, who spoke for 14 hours straight at one point during the filibuster, said years later that his vote against the act was one of only two he regretted among his first 14,000 Senate votes.
The longest-serving black in Congress, Democrat John Conyers of Detroit, was first elected in November 1964, just four months after the act became law. The next year, he helped win approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"There's a lot of work still to be done," Conyers said in a telephone interview. "There are parts of both acts that are being emasculated; there is open hostility to toward them by some conservatives."
Conyers is pleased by the growth of the black upper class, but dismayed by the seemingly intractable problems at the other end of the scale.
"In Detroit you've got high unemployment, a poverty rate of at least 30 percent, schools not in great shape, high illiteracy, poor families not safe from crime, without health insurance, problems with housing," he said. "You can't fix one problem by itself -- they're all connected."
The interconnections are observed close-up by Calvin Street, 53, director of an inner-city youth center run by the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition. He oversees an array of programs designed to help young blacks find jobs even if they have court records or lack a high school diploma.
Street, who worked most of his career with Maryland's Department of Human Resources, says his young clients face plenty of hurdles placed unfairly in their way. But he also believes they can help themselves with a collective change of attitude.
Popular culture -- music, film, television -- have programmed young people, he said.
"You have too much conformity," he said. "They place more value on someone coming out of the criminal justice system than someone who goes off to college."
Street recalled his early adolescence in Baltimore before the Civil Rights Act.
"The lessons of survival were clear," he said. "I remember my father saying, 'You're going to have to run the race and win it, even if you have a ton of bricks on your back."'
Lawrence Imel, a 21-year-old who studies computer repair at Street's youth center, also questioned the priorities of many in his generation.
"We follow the wrong idols -- athletes, entertainers," he said. "There's misguided adoration of drugs and alcohol."
However, he said even the most earnest of job searches by inner-city youths often end in disappointment, or a menial, low-paying job.
"The promise has not been fulfilled," he said of the Civil Rights Act. "We're told that this is America, the land of opportunity. But when you go out and seek that opportunity, it doesn't happen."