Steven Lebow: The Civil Rights Act changed things, but there are doors that still need to be opened

"The passage of the Civil Rights Act sent me on a journey that I am still walking today."

Steven Lebow
Steven Lebow

Photograph by Stephanie Eley

This essay is part of a series—we asked 17 Atlantans to tell us how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted their lives in honor of its 60th anniversary. Read all of the essays here.

In 1963, I took a trip from my home in Fort Lauderdale to visit my brother in Atlanta. At some point, my parents stopped for gas in South Georgia, and I was sent off to use the bathroom. As I reached to open the door of the restroom, my mother’s sudden grip on my shoulder held me back. She pointed to a sign above the doorway and told me that door was closed to me. The sign read “For Colored Only.” I don’t remember many things from my childhood, but I do remember seeing that sign and not knowing what it meant. For the rest of the trip, I peppered my parents with questions about segregation. I am sure that in that conversation, I asked the simple question “Why?” And to that particular question about Jim Crow laws, my father simply said, “This is what evil looks like.”

The passage of the Civil Rights Act sent me on a journey that I am still walking today. In 1987, I marched with Hosea Williams to integrate Forsyth County. In 1993, I organized the movement to protest the Cobb County anti-gay resolution. By 1994, 30 years ago, I began to lead the cause to completely exonerate Leo Frank, an innocent man who was lynched in Marietta in 1915.

This past month, I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It opened my eyes and reminded me of the horror of slavery. It reminded me of the evil of segregation that my father had taught me about in 1963. It reminded me of the high percentage of Black men who are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses in this country. And it reminded me, too, that over 500 African Americans were lynched in Georgia from 1877 to 1950. Just as I fight for Leo Frank, we all need to remember those African Americans who were lynched. They deserve to be exonerated and to have their names cleared as well.

Much has changed in our country since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Every night when we lie down to sleep, we should celebrate all that our country has done in the last 60 years. And every morning when we awake, we should acknowledge that there are doors that still need to be opened.

Rabbi Steven Lebow is the senior rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Emeth.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.