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Let us now praise famous laws and the year that begat them: 1964.
The first thing to know about 1964 was that, although it occurred in the 1960s, it wasn’t part of “the Sixties.” The bellbottoms, flower power, LSD and craziness came later, beginning about 1967 and extending into the early 1970s. Trust me: I was there, and I don’t remember much; so by the dictum variously attributed to Grace Slick, Dennis Hopper and others (that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t part of them), I must really have been there.
Nineteen sixty-four was a revolutionary year. It was a time when Congress actually addressed the people’s business, and it gave us at least three great laws.
One was the monumental Civil Rights Act, which aspired to complete the tragic and sanguinary work of the Civil War and achieve the promise of the Thirteenth Amendment.
The least known of the three was the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which, by drawing on revenue from offshore oil and gas leases, provided the means for the federal and state purchase of all kinds of recreational and wild lands, from inner-city parks and playgrounds to habitat for grizzly bears and mountain lions. President Johnson signed that bill into law on September 3, 1964, fifty years ago this month, mere moments after the more famous ceremony that went with his signing of the Wilderness Act.
Like the Civil Rights Act, the Wilderness Act legislated justice. I don’t mean to equate the two laws—no one went to jail or was attacked by police dogs or shot or killed to get the Wilderness Act passed, but it did embody a revolutionary act of justice, nevertheless. It legislated compassion toward the planet by insisting that we humans must stop and leave certain lands alone and not take anything more from them. That third great law of 1964 made a down payment on giving Earth its due. It was that kind of justice.
In 1964, I had only the vaguest inklings about these matters. That summer I was more concerned with the Barry Goldwater literature I was sticking behind my neighbor’s screen doors. Barry Goldwater? The right-wing Republican candidate for president whom the Dems famously branded as trigger-happy with the nuclear arsenal? Yes, that Goldwater. My father, a Republican, was for him, and so I was, too. Could my dad have been wrong? Hell no, not for at least another ten teenage minutes, after which the old guy seemed to be wrong about nearly everything for the next decade, but that’s not the story I want to tell.