Civil Rights Act of 1964

With the twentieth century civil rights movement well underway, Congress passed one of the two major acts focused on prohibiting and providing remedies for discrimination against blacks. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is a comprehensive piece of legislation designed to attack racial segregation, as well as discrimination based on gender, in public accommodations, employment, and by any private individual or organization that receives federal funding.

The 1964 act came after the passage of the 1957 and 1960 civil rights acts,which sought to protect voting and provide federal protection to ensure voting by blacks. However, racial discrimination in voting and other facets of American society, particularly in the South, prompted President John F. Kennedy to push for a civil rights act. However, it was after Kennedy’s assassination that the bill gainedmajor moment inCongress, due in large part to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s call for equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race.

The first section of the act focused on voting and barred discriminatory techniques to voter registration; however, the use of such discrimination techniques as the literacy test, which were used to deny voting privileges to blacks and poor whites, would be dealt with major reforms protecting the right to vote would come a year later with the Voting Rights Act. The second section (Title II) prohibits discrimination in any public accommodations (inns, hotels, restaurants, and theaters for example), even though they may be privately owned. This section was based on the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce and was subsequently upheld (unlike the Civil Rights Act of 1875) by the U.S. Supreme Court in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States and Katzenbach v. McClung. Title III of the act promoted the concept of desegregation of public schools, begun with the 1954 and 1955 U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education. Title VI prohibits discrimination to any public or private organization that receives federal funding. Finally, Title VII outlaws discrimination based on race, national origin, gender, or religion in employment practices. This section was upheld as constitutional in the 1971 case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co., which also held that the act prohibited both intentional discriminatory practices and those practices that had a ‘‘disparate impact’’ on minorities. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII sanctioned the use of hiring and promotion practices to counter historical discrimination in employment. This has lead to the controversy of affirmative action as a policy to alleviate past discrimination in present-day situations. Finally, by outlawing discrimination based on gender, the Civil Rights Act extends beyond racial discrimination also to areas of ‘‘sexual harassment.’’

In conjunction with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has provided the impetus for major societal changes in regard to all kinds of discrimination and to protect and ensure civil liberties for all Americans.

J. MICHAEL BITZER

References and Further Reading

  • Graham, Hugh Davis. The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy 1960–1972. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: the Supreme Court and the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
  • Kotz, Nick. Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2005.
  • Lawson, Stephen F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.
  • Mann, Robert. The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
  • Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971)
  • Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964)
  • Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964)

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