On July 2, 1964, Nannie Washington, a 21-year-old graduate of the ragged, racially segregated "colored" high school in Bluefield, West Virginia, waited expectantly in her new Hempstead hometown for the contractions that would let her know her child would be born.
At that same moment, members of Congress and civil rights leaders craned forward around President Lyndon B. Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a watershed piece of legislation that outlawed job discrimination, prohibited hotels and other public establishments from refusing patrons based on race, and banned forced school segregation.
Five decades later, as today's 50th anniversary of the law got closer, Washington gathered Sunday with other well-wishers at LIU Post in Old Brookville to watch her grandson graduate from Jericho High School.
This child of the Jim Crow era, a 71-year-old grandmother, cheered with delight as her daughter's son stepped up to get his diploma and walked out to a world so different from hers when she was his age.
"It has changed America greatly," Washington proudly said of the ground-shifting federal law.
While the social and racial progress it set in motion is impossible to miss in 2014, concerns about the law's enforcement and effectiveness remain. Supporters and other activists point to what they see as inequality in health care, education, the justice system and other areas of American life as proof the historic decree still has far to go.
Strides made, more to go
"This was perhaps the most important legislation of the 20th century," said Tom Johnson, a White House aide to President Johnson at the time of the bill's passage. "But I still believe there is racism in the workplace and in education. I see resegregation on college campuses. . . . We've yet to reach any level of parity."
Black men are sent to state prisons for drug offenses at a rate 13 times that of whites, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, though drug use among both is virtually identical.
And de facto school segregation continues to hamper black access to quality education, according to multiple studies. On Long Island, the number of schools that are "intensely segregated" -- defined as having less than 10 percent white students -- surged from less than 4 percent in 1990 to more than 11 percent in 2011, according to a March UCLA study.
Washington said her life experience before and after the Civil Rights Act's enactment is proof of its worth.
"I was following everything that was happening in the civil rights era then -- the three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi trying to get voting rights for blacks, the sit-ins, people being beaten and jailed, people like Medgar Evers killed right in front of their houses," said Washington, who moved to Hempstead in 1960, found a job as a $25-per-week domestic, and married Clarence Washington, a black letter carrier. "When LBJ signed it, it made things better for the black people."
Recalling a violent past
Episodes in America's struggle toward racial equality can be told by the vast majority of African-American families. Washington's family, which was chosen for this article after a random database search for people born in July 1964, is no exception. Violent enforcement of neighborhood segregation literally scarred one of Washington's elder daughters, she said, while she awaited a bus on a darkened street in what was the white part of town in Bluefield. A group of men attacked her with a brick. Washington's family never told police.
"If you needed the police you could forget it if it happened on the wrong side of the tracks." Washington said. "It could have been one of their neighbors."
The soldiers of the civil rights era were black high school and college students, including Bonnie Washington, a Florida native who married Clarence Washington after he and Nannie divorced.
In 1964 Bonnie Washington had just returned to her Florida home during a college break when she was jailed a week for participating in a sit-in at a lunch counter that refused black customers.
"Initially we were probably not aware of how dangerous it was, but then it started to get really, really violent because local whites began to bring in Ku Klux Klan from out of state," Bonnie Washington said. "Some people had their houses shot into. Then we knew it was more serious than it had been."
Race and the justice system
The extended Washington family has other stories of difficulties before the act was passed.
Willie Francis, an uncle of Clarence, was executed in 1947 for the Louisiana murder of a pharmacist in St. Martinville, Louisiana. An all-white jury convicted Francis after a brief trial even though police claimed they lost the murder weapon before fingerprinting it. Police had interrogated Francis, 15, with a third-grade education, without an attorney. The court did not provide him with a lawyer until six days before trial. His attorney called no witnesses.
The entire episode was told in a 2009 book, "Death Penalty Stories," by Fordham University Law Professor Deborah Denno, who said "race had a huge impact on the way individuals were processed in the criminal justice system."
Clarence Washington, 75, now retired and living in Hempstead, was 9 and living in Port Arthur, Texas, when his uncle was arrested there while visiting family. He remembers relatives gathering donations in a cigar box and using it "to collect nickels and dimes so he could get a lawyer."
Years after the execution and less than two weeks before the bill reached Johnson's desk, three activists -- including one from Queens College and another from Columbia University -- were murdered by Klansmen while on voter registration drives in Mississippi.
Despite the violence, opposition to the bill was fierce. Southern senators held a 60-day filibuster before supporters ended it.
More than a decade later, as crime increased in and around Hempstead High School, where her daughter was attending, Nannie Washington was able to enroll her daughter Rose at a high school in more affluent -- and mostly white -- East Meadow. Her daughter, now Rose Joyner, went on to earn a bachelor's degree in education at SUNY Old Westbury and is a teacher.
Joyner's son, James, said Sunday that he has only a hazy knowledge of the Civil Rights Act signed as his grandmother awaited the birth of his mother.
But as relatives hugged him, he said he appreciated what it gave him.
"I feel pride . . . love," said James, who will attend Nassau Community College in the fall. "I'm real happy."