CIVIL RIGHTS ACT, 1964
The civil rights movement hit American society. Among its crucial achievements were two
major civil rights laws passed by Congress. These laws ensured constitutional rights for African
Americans and other minorities. Although these rights were first guaranteed in the U.S.
Constitution immediately after the Civil War, they had never been fully enforced. It was only
after years of highly publicized civil rights demonstrations, marches, and violence that American
political leaders acted to enforce these rights.
President John F. Kennedy proposed the initial civil rights act. Kennedy faced great personal
and political conflicts over this legislation.
Following the Civil War, a trio of constitutional amendments abolished slavery ( 13
Amendment), made the formerly enslaved people citizens (14 Amendment) and gave all men the
right to vote regardless of race (15 Amendment).
For decades after Reconstruction, the U.S. Congress didn’t pass a single civil rights act. Finally,
in 1957, it established a civil rights section of the Justice Department, along with a Commission
on Civil Rights to investigate discriminatory conditions.
Three years later, Congress provided for court-appointed referees to help Black people register to
vote. Both of these bills were strongly watered down to overcome southern resistance.
When John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, he initially delayed supporting new
anti-discrimination measures. But with protests springing up throughout the South—including
one in Birmingham, Alabama, where police brutally suppressed nonviolent demonstrators with
dogs, clubs and high-pressure fire hoses—Kennedy decided to act.
In June 1963 he proposed by far the thorough civil rights legislation to date, saying the United
States “will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.”
Kennedy was assassinated in November in Dallas, after which new President Lyndon B.
Johnson immediately took up the cause.
Having broken the blocking, the Senate voted 73-27 in favor of the bill, and Johnson signed it
into law on July 2, 1964. “It is an important gain, but I think we just delivered the South to the
Republican Party for a long time to come,” Johnson, a Democrat, reportedly told an adviser later
that day in a prediction that would largely come true.
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation on the grounds of race, religion or national
origin was banned at all places of public accommodation, including courthouses, parks,
restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and hotels. No longer could Black people and other minorities
be denied service simply based on the color of their skin.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barred race, religious, national origin and gender discrimination
by employers and labor unions, and created an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
with the power to file lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved workers.
Additionally, the act forbade the use of federal funds for any discriminatory program, authorized
the Office of Education (now the Department of Education) to assist with school desegregation,
gave extra clout to the Commission on Civil Rights and prohibited the unequal application of
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was nothing less
than a “second emancipation.”
The Civil Rights Act was later expanded to bring disabled Americans, the elderly and women in
collegiate athletics under its umbrella.
It also paved the way for two major follow-up laws: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which
prohibited literacy tests and other discriminatory voting practices, and the Fair Housing Act of
1968, which banned discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of property. Though the
struggle against racism would continue, legal segregation had been brought to its knees in the