Paralegal Guide: Civil Rights Act of 1964
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, activists hoped to finally put the nails in the coffin of legal segregation in the United States. By ensuring that all public spaces, whether or not they were public property, could not discriminate along lines of race and gender, the Civil Rights Act overrode the previous doctrine of “separate but equal” facilities and became the primary tool for the defense of civil rights in America. What’s shocking to the modern scholar is not the content of the bill, but how stiff the resistance to civil rights was, and how senators like Richard Russell of Georgia could use the term “equality” pejoratively. We’d like to examine the content of the Civil Rights Act, its history, and its eventual passage.
The bill was first proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and was quickly strengthened in the House Judiciary Committee led by Emmanuel Celler (D-NY). In November 1963 it was forwarded to the Rules Committee, led by Howard Smith (D-VA), a notorious segregationist who tried to waylay the bill. It looked, for a moment, as if the bill was going to get held up by the political maneuvering of powerful white Southern politicians.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the situation changed completely. Lyndon Johnson entered the presidency, and his political technique greatly favored forceful action over diplomacy. He rallied a unified group of Northern Democrats and liberal Republicans to push the bill through Congress. The bill passed the House 290-130. In early 1964, the bill went to the Senate, where it met stiff opposition. James Eastland (D-MS), head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was one of the most adamant segregationists in his time, and threatened to hold up the bill indefinitely. A method was devised to navigate around the Judiciary Committee and move straight to Senate floor debate. While it met with further resistance and filibustering from Southern Senators, most notably a younger Strom Thurmond, the Civil Rights Act made it through and was signed by Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.
The final wording was somewhat modified from the original, but retained the essence of the original goals. It was made up of eleven sections, summed up as follows:
Title I. Voter registration must be equal.
Title II. Places accessible to the public must not discriminate.
Title III. Government facilities cannot discriminate.
Title IV. Public schools must desegregate.
Title V. More power will be given to the Civil Rights Commission.
Title VI. Government agencies that discriminate will lose federal funding.
Title VII. Employers cannot discriminate.
Title VIII. Voting and registration data must be compiled in certain regions as specified by the Civil Rights Commission.
Title IX. Civil rights cases that aren’t tried fairly in state courts can be more easily moved to federal courts.
Title X. Establishing the Community Relations Service.
Title XI. Any criminal contempt under the Civil Rights Act can be brought to trial.
In the late ’60s, official, de jure gender and racial discrimination quickly became a thing of the past. While de facto segregation, even on an institutional level, remained, the victims of discrimination now had recourse. The challenge for civil rights activists post-1964 was to, a) ensure that the provisos of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were being followed, and b) fight discrimination outside the framework of official institutions.
In the ’70s, the Supreme Court established that the Civil Rights Act demanded a great many more changes that were not made explicit by the text of the act. For instance, jobs could not discriminate against the mothers of young children, because this was an act of gender discrimination. Likewise, height requirements for police officers seemed to mostly be designed to discriminate against women rather than ensure a healthy police force. As the feminist movement gained steam through the 1970s, the Civil Rights Act became a valuable tool to strike down the sex discrimination that had been a little-mentioned but important part of American office culture.
The consequences for the politicians involved in the passage of the Civil Rights Act were broad-reaching. Lyndon Johnson, despite his unpopularity during the Vietnam conflict, decimated Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 elections. Hubert Humphrey, who helped lead the charge for the Civil Rights Act, established his position as a tireless fighter for liberal causes, and would hold the Vice Presidency from 1965 to 1969, before barely losing the 1968 Presidential election to Richard Nixon.
Politicians that opposed the Civil Rights Act, by and large, remained in power. The Democratic Party’s monolithic power in the American South, a remnant of post-Civil War resentment towards the Republicans, was perhaps brought to an end by the passage of the Civil Rights Act. White conservatives, increasingly dissatisfied with the Democrats’ liberal, Northern leadership, began defecting to the Republican Party in droves. Shortly after the passage of the act, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, one of the most powerful Southern Senators, switched his affiliation to the Republican Party. He continued his career as a Republican until his retirement 40 years later. By the ’90s, virtually all of the conservative Southern Democratic congressmen had joined the Republican ranks or been voted out of office. While the actual political ethos of the South remained more or less the same, the formal political affiliations switched, completely altering American presidential elections ever since.
The full text of the Civil Rights Act is available online here.
The legislative history of the Civil Rights Act, hosted by Colorado College:
Presidency book excerpt, the legislative history of this bill as it became an Act.
President Johnson’s speech upon the passage of the act:
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Radio and Television Remarks Upon Signing the Civil Rights Bill