The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a monumental piece of legislation passed during the Civil Rights Movement. After the Civil War, slavery was abolished and competing visions of Reconstruction failed to create a place for the former slaves and their descendants. Instead, African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens through much of the country, particularly in the South. There was strict racial segregation through the region. In addition, Jim Crow laws constantly reinforced that blacks were inferior to whites. Laws and even Constitutional amendments passed during Reconstruction were not enforced by local and state governments and the federal government turned a blind eye to widespread violations of civil rights.
While efforts were made to challenge the unfair treatment, such as the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to fight unjust laws in the courts, it wasn’t until the world wars that things began to change. To begin with, both wars spurred a major shift in population distribution as the Great Migration saw the movement of poor black sharecroppers in the South to Northern cities to take jobs in factories vacated by the white men serving in the armed forces.
World War II, in particular, helped spur change. After defeating the openly racist regimes in Japan, Italy and Germany, many Americans were no longer willing to accept the status quo. For instance, the U. S. armed forces were segregated in World War II and African-Americans were generally kept from combat duty. President Harry Truman was personally disturbed by stories of discrimination from veterans and ordered that military be desegregated in 1948 via executive order. But these were only the beginnings of the changes—and the struggles—to come.
The NAACP made a great step forward when one of its cases challenging segregation in public schools was finally ruled on by the Supreme Court in 1954. The Court unanimously reversed an 1896 ruling (Plessy v. Ferguson) that said segregation was acceptable, using the infamous phrase “separate but equal.” The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, ruling declared that school segregation was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. By extension, the ruling also struck down segregation laws in all public facilities. But enforcement of the Court’s decision was difficult as local and state authorities sought to defy federal mandates to integrate schools.
The NAACP pressed the issue in an event known as the Little Rock Crisis. At Central High School in Little Rock, AK, the NAACP attempted to enroll nine African-American students at the all-white school in 1957. Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to bar the students from entering the school. President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to intervene, taking command of the National Guard and sent troops of the 101 Airborne to escort the students to class for the remainder of the school year, showing that the federal government was going to enforce the Court’s rulings on integration of public schools. Despite this, resistance to desegregation was still fierce.
A protest movement emerged to try and force other changes to American society, showing a high degree of organization and sophistication. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lasting from 1955-1956, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as one of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement. King’s message called for non-violent forms of protest (also called passive-resistance and civil disobedience) to bring the issues to the forefront. Violent reaction by the authorities to these peaceful marches and other protests (such as the lunch-counter sit-ins and the Freedom Riders) attracted news coverage, making civil rights a hot topic across the country.
It was in this atmosphere that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was first proposed by President John F. Kennedy in June of 1963. He was responding to the King’s Birmingham Campaign and the press coverage of the authority’s use of violence against peaceful protesters. In a televised address, he urged Congress to pass a civil rights law that banned segregation in public facilities and guaranteed greater federal protection of voting rights. Behind the scenes, he worked with key members of his party, the Democrats, to strengthen support of the bill. But Southern Democrats sought to fight against it.
JFK’s proposal inspired the Civil Rights March on Washington in August of 1963. 250,000 people traveled to Washington, D. C., to show their support for the civil rights bill, making it the largest rally for human rights in American history. At the day’s program, Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The March put pressure on Congressmen to pass the bill. When Congress returned to Washington in the fall, Kennedy held meetings to help facilitate the bill’s passage, but powerful Southern Democrats in key positions still posed a threat as they held key positions that could allow them to keep the bill from passing.
After JFK’s assassination in November 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, took up the fight for the proposed civil rights law. The problem was that while the bill had been introduced in the House of Representatives, Southern Democrats were trying to prevent the law from reaching the House floor by keeping it bottled up in committee. Johnson used his political experience to get the proposed bill out of committee and it passed the House in February of 1964. The bill then had to be considered in the Senate, where the “Southern Bloc” again tried to stop it from reaching the floor to be voted on. There, the Southern Democrats used the filibuster to stall for time to try to organize opposition to the bill. But it didn’t work. The Senate approved the bill in June of 1964, sending it to the President.
Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2, 1964, creating a legal ban on segregation in public facilities, enforceable by federal law and also giving the federal government the power to protect voting rights for African-Americans in the South. The legislation was an important step in the Civil Rights Movement. But enforcing it was difficult. It also didn’t address discrimination in “private” facilities, something that was left to be dealt with by future Supreme Court cases and legislation.
The impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the federal action that followed, was that the federal government showed a renewed commitment to civil rights and a willingness to enforce federal laws in places where state and local authorities had up until that time ignored them. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 paved the way for two more important civil rights measures, the Voting Rights Act of 1965—which showed that the federal government was also going to ensure that it would enforce preexisting, but ignored legislation guaranteeing African-Americans the right to vote—and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, designed to protect African-Americans and other minority groups from discrimination when buying or renting homes.
In particular, the federal government’s actions in response to the Civil Rights Movement showed a reaffirmation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of “equal protection under law.” By taking enforcement of these federal laws out of the hands of state and local authorities that undermined the measures, the federal government created new departments designed specifically to ensure federal mandates were being followed.
The federal government also showed a re-commitment to the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of voting rights for African-Americans. As a result of civil rights legislation, there was a significant increase in the number of African-Americans registered to vote (particularly in the South). This forced politicians to take issues important to African-Americans seriously as they were now an important constituency that could help elect or remove unresponsive politicians from office. But African-Americans are not the only beneficiaries of civil rights legislation. These laws extend to all minority groups (including women, immigrants, homosexuals, etc.). While racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination remain issues even still today, long after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, significant progress was made during the era that has gotten America closer to the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Other Civil Rights Legislation:
- Civil Rights Act of 1866
- Civil Rights Act of 1871
- Civil Rights Act of 1875
- Civil Rights Act of 1957
- Civil Rights Act of 1960
- Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Civil Rights Act of 1968
- Civil Rights Act of 1991