Passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on 2 July 1964, the Civil Rights Act was arguably the most revolutionary legislation concerning African Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed slaves from bondage. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited segregation in public places, made employment discrimination illegal, and integrated all schools and other public facilities. This act made it unconstitutional to discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, nationality, religion, and so on.
The Act was arguably born in John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Following the 1960 Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights commission found that 57% of African American housing was judged to be unacceptable, life expectancy was seven years shorter for African Americans and infant mortality was twice as great. After being sworn in on Air Force One following Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson was able to pass the act in the spirit of continuing what Kennedy wanted, in addition to the hypocrisy of the Cold War hanging over America. Whilst America condemned the Russians and branded itself the ‘land of the free’, African Americans were still treated as second class citizens. Racism has been a continuous problem throughout the United States since the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. Despite Lincoln introducing the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, white supremacist attitudes have not disappeared. Disaffection with the legislation was first demonstrated by the assassination of Lincoln on 15 April 1865 by John Wilkes Booth, in an attempt to revive the confederacy cause.
From 1865-77, the United States entered a period of Reconstruction in attempt to repair the damages inflicted by war. The failures of Reconstruction, combined with the bitterness of the Southern States, deepened racial prejudice. The Ku Klux Klan quickly grew in numbers following the war, African Americans were lynched in thousands, and Southern States wasted no time in introducing the Black Codes which restricted African American freedom. For example, every Southern State rewrote its constitution in order to prohibit African Americans from voting, including Literacy tests and Grandfather Clauses to ensure the franchise remained white. African Americans lived with segregation, a principle made legal on the grounds of ‘separate but equal’ as a result of Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896.
Abiding by rules branded the ‘Jim Crow Laws’, equal facilities were non-existent and fear tortured the lives of many African Americans. Between 1880-1930, 3220 African Americans were lynched. As a result of the continuing violence and discrimination several African American Activist groups were established. Most famously, the NAACP, founded by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1909, which practiced non-violent ways to fight racism and discrimination. This non-violent approach became key to the Civil Rights Movement, which saw African Americans participate in peaceful protests such as sit-ins, freedom rides, and boycotts, despite the violent response of white Americans.
Most famous for his non-violent approach was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who performed his iconic I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington in August 1963, a year before the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Rosa Parks was also a key figure in the movement, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott which led to the desegregation of public transport whilst, the desegregation of Central High School in Arkansas saw the ‘Little Rock nine’ brave white mobs to attend school. Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from this school in 1958.
Despite the struggles of African Americans in their fight for equality both amongst their own community as well as with white America (not everyone believed in the non-violent approach, such as famous Black Power activist Malcom X), the Civil Rights Act was a revolutionary step forward in terms of equality and legislation. It is also important to remember that whilst the Act was primarily targeted at African Americans,it prevented discrimination on all grounds, helping women and Americans of other nationalities to gain equal opportunity in America. Although it was progressive, many African Americans (along with a large number of whites, but for different reasons) were dissatisfied with the Act as they felt it did not go far enough. This is evident through continued campaigning, such as King’s march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 in protest of voter discrimination which generated The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a stepping stone, albeit a large one, in the fight for equality that still continues in this day.