Fifty years ago this month, on October 2, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed what became a revolutionary law.
The Hart-Celler Act, the Immigration and National Act Amendments of 1965, eliminated immigration quotas based on national origins. The law’s sponsors were looking backwards not forwards, fixing what had become anachronistic, embarrassing, bigoted restrictions that sent Holocaust refugees to death camps in Europe rather than life in America. But despite Johnson’s insistence that the legal change was “not a revolutionary bill” and “will not reshape the structure of our daily lives,” this decision transformed black versus white America into Rainbow America, giving us today’s browner, multiracial, multicultural, nation.
Although America is a nation of immigrants, only in the late 20th century did many Americans started admitting it. Since colonial days, America’s marvelous but somewhat delusional assimilatory mechanism turned “foreigners” into “natives,” some of whom then resented future foreigners. We usually imagine Revolutionary society as all native WASPs. This ignores the rich mix of citizens, speaking Dutch and German, hailing from across Europe and, of course, Africa.