Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, was a watershed piece of legislation that “outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Originally conceived to protect the rights of black males, the bill was amended to protect the civil rights of everyone in the United States, and stipulated in no uncertain terms that women (of all races) were to be afforded the same protection.

Although President John F. Kennedy promised action and had a bill sent to Congress in 1963, it would fall to President Lyndon B. Johnson to follow through on the act following Kennedy’s death. In March, after the violence in Selma, he addressed Congress:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man`s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government -- the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.

Southern Democrats and other segregationists were violently opposed to the measure, and tried to defeat it through a filibuster. When the bill finally came to a vote, it was passed by an overwhelming margin.

The act transformed American society by “prohibiting discrimination in public facilities, in government, and in employment." The "Jim Crow" laws in the South were abolished, and it became illegal to force segregation of races in schools, housing, or hiring.

The modern civil rights movement that culminated in the enactment of the law is usually credited to Rosa Parks, a black woman from Montgomery, Alabama, who, in December 1955, refused to relinquish her seat on a municipal bus to a white man.

Parks was fined for disobeying a city ordinance, which she refused to pay, setting up the first test of the constitutionality of segregation on publicly owned property.

History of the legislation

There have been a number of “civil rights" acts passed by Congress since the end of the Civil War, including those of 1866, 1871 (also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Act), 1875, 1957 (establishing the Civil Rights Commission), 1960, 1968 (fair housing), and 1991, but this act — of 1964 — is thought to be the most meaningful for several reasons.

It came at a time when racial tensions were growing and showed that the federal government can and does respond to the needs and demands of the people of a democracy.

For the first time, the act covered an entire culture — all Americans (with a few exceptions) — and it was equipped with the legislative teeth to follow through on its promises of equal treatment.

The act barred unequal application of voter registration requirements, though it did not do away with literacy tests. It also banned discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations, though it exempted private clubs. It “encouraged" the desegregation of public schools and charged the U.S. Attorney General with the filing of law suits to carry out its mandate.

Title VII of the act outlawed discrimination in employment based on race, color, creed, sex, or national origin, for any firm with 15 or more full-time employees. Sexual harassment was interpreted as falling under sex discrimination, as found in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986).

Title VII was expanded by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, to include legislation prohibiting pregnancy, age, and disability discrimination.


See also “History of Civil Rights in America - Parts 1 , 2 , and 3 ."

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