TAMPA — Delano Stewart was in law school in Washington, D.C., when Martin Luther King, Jr. led his famous march on the capital.
He remembers turning on the television and hearing the news anchors underestimate the size of the crowd. He remembers the goose bumps on his arms when he stepped off a bus downtown and saw all the people of different races and backgrounds gathered for the same purpose.
“There is always a better and brighter day ahead if you have the guts to fight for a brighter day,” said Stewart, a Tampa lawyer and civil rights activist.
He was one of several local leaders who came together Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On July 2 of that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law, banning discrimination based on race, religion or sex.
It is the most important law of the last century, said John Schmelzer, acting director of field coordination programs with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He came from Washington, D.C., to speak at the ceremony.
“This law is a majestic law,” he said. “It changed the United States.”
About 30 people gathered in the auditorium of the John F. Germany library to reflect on how many people had to sacrifice before the law was put into effect. A proclamation from Mayor Bob Buckhorn honoring the anniversary was read after Tampa NAACP president Carolyn Hepburn Collins led the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the political and social landscape of the country, the attendees agreed, but there is still work to be done to eliminate all discrimination.
“It was monumental legislation,” Stewart said. “But we cannot go to sleep.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was formed a year after the Civil Rights Act was passed, investigates thousands of discrimination complaints every year and operates out of more than 50 field offices across the country, according to its website.
“Our walk to freedom isn’t complete,” said Florida Rep. Alan Williams.
He helped found the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2010, which honors Floridians who fought and still fight for civil rights.
“Passing this legislation was the right thing to do at the time,” Williams said about the Civil Rights Act. “Vigorously enforcing it is the right thing to do in our time.”
And there are people out there who would undo the progress of the past 50 years if they could, Stewart said. Those who have already benefitted from the liberty given to them by the Civil Rights Act need to reach out to others who haven’t yet seized the opportunities it affords them, he said.
“We can have a better tomorrow if we have faith that we can get there,” he said.