Time to Celebrate Civil Rights Landmarks

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Olmstead case are having anniversaries. We remember these milestones in the journey away from segregation.

The summer is beginning and it’s time to celebrate!  But not just for that well-earned vacation or moments in the sun.


July 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Act bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment, public accommodations, and voting.  The voting provisions require equal treatment but do not prohibit attempts to limit voting by imposing voting qualifications in addition to citizenship.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated most voting qualifications beyond citizenship.

June 22 marks the 15th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Olmstead v. L.C. This landmark case found that unnecessary institutionalization violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).


Two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, had been voluntarily admitted Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta and diagnosed as having a psychiatric condition and an intellectual disability.  When the hospital found them ready for discharge, both were denied an appropriate community placement.  They sued, contending that the ADA prohibited Georgia providing them only services that unnecessarily isolated them from nondisabled people in their communities.

On June 22, 1999, the Court agreed with Lois and Elaine.  It held that ADA prohibits a state from offering only institution-based services to a person who is determined to be appropriate for community services, wants community services, and can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account public resources

“Unjustified isolation,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability.”

The court was very clear in saying that it was not deciding whether institutions are good or bad in general or for any specific person.  It found, however, that if a state does not have an “effectively working plan” that allows people to move out of institutions at a reasonable speed, it is guilty of discrimination under the ADA.

Scholars have noted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created the conceptual structure for the ADA. Both prohibit employment discrimination by private employers and discrimination in public accommodations.  The Olmstead decision, recognizing that segregation constitutes a civil rights violation, draws directly from earlier civil rights cases and laws.

And so lift a glass to these two anniversaries that are so important to the right of citizens to live together in the world.

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