When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, 40 years ago Friday, Rene Warfield was a 12-year-old living in a mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn. She had three thoughts about the Deep South: cotton picking, slavery, and cruelty to black people - until she moved here.
"Black people live here much better than they do in the North. You still find prejudice down here, but not as much as in the North," she says. She followed an aunt to South Carolina in 1989, moved back to New York for five years in 1998, then "hightailed it back to the South." She likes the quiet neighborhoods, better schools, and, most of all, feeling she is at home.
Once home to some of the South's harshest race-baiters, South Carolina now reflects how profoundly this region has changed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act barred segregation in public facilities and outlawed discrimination in hiring. Until then, there had been only faltering starts on creating a more just society. While push for racial equality is unfinished, here and in other regions, the tide of blacks such as Ms. Warfield returning to the South signals progress. So do other indicators, from education and economics to political participation. Southern states account for 18 out of 39 black members of Congress today, for example, up from 0 out of 5 in 1964, for example. Moreover, the agenda of racial progress is still often close to the surface in the South, while largely forgotten in the North.
"It may be hard for people in other parts of he country to believe this, but if they look South they may see some beacons of hope in this nation," says Dick Molpus, a three-time Mississippi secretary of state. "The Civil Rights Act totally transformed our state."
Of course, there's a caveat: "Many of the demons we face today are similar to the ones 40 years ago," he adds, citing lingering racism, poverty, teen pregnancy, and lack of support for public schools. Overt segregation may have ended, but the rise of private schools and white flight has extended the pattern. Subtle race baiting remains a part of US politics.
Still, the Civil Rights Act - and the civil rights movement more broadly - accelerated economic and social changes in the South that broadened opportunities. As a result, blacks began moving back to the region in the 1970s. By 2000, some 7.2 million blacks had returned to former slave lands. In 1970, there were 1,469 black elected officials in the US; by 2001, more than 9,000. Eight of the 10 states with the highest number of black elected officials are in the South.
In the 1980s, Southern governors took the lead in pushing for more accountability and standards-based reform in education. South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley convinced voters to back a $217 million school reform package in 1984. While high schoolers here have improved their SAT scores by 38 points in the past five years - the largest gains in the nation - huge gaps between races remain. Only 46 percent of black eighth graders here could solve basic problems on the most recent national math test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, versus 84 percent of whites. That remains better than the national picture, where 39 percent of black eighth-graders can solve basic problems.
Southern blacks have also made economic gains. While still lagging behind whites, African-Americans in the South had median incomes of $32,509 by 2001, up from $17,812 (in 2001 dollars) in 1967. For comparison, blacks nationally earned a median of $33,598 in 2001, and whites $51,407. All these categories gained in the past 40 years, but the gain for Southern blacks is greatest. "The 1964 Act gave us right to the customer side of lunch counter. We are still engaged in struggle for cash-register side," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Soon after the passage of the 1964 act, the gap between white and black voter registration rates began closing, says the Department of Justice. In Mississippi, only 6.7 percent of black eligible voters were registered to vote in 1965, compared with 69.7 percent of whites. By 1988, 74.2 percent of blacks were registered. Progress was dramatic across the whole region.
"Before the Civil Rights Act of 64, life for almost all black people in the South represented a denial of most of the guarantees of equal opportunity and equal access that the 14th amendment seemingly had guaranteed 100 years before," says former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, who describes the end of Jim Crow as "the greatest transforming event in the South in my lifetime."
After the Civil War, blacks briefly attained some clout, but by 1900 the region had no black legislators.
When northern Democrats pushed for the Civil Rights Act in 1964, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond led conservative Democrats in bolting to the GOP - a movement that has continued to transform the region's politics. In his later years, Thurmond embraced civil rights. Mississippi GOP Sen. Trent Lott was forced to step down as Senate majority leader in 2002, after comments that appeared to support Thurmond's early views on race.
• Elizabeth Armstrong contributed to this report.