The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law on July 2, 1964, brought an end to much of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation, and has been called by many the most important piece of civil rights legislation in U.S. history. Yet it addressed much more than many realize, says Sundiata Cha-Jua, a professor of history and of African American studies at Illinois. There's also more to the story than the legislative battle and the arm-twisting role of President Lyndon Johnson, which gets much of the attention. Cha-Jua spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
So why was this legislation so important? And why was its passage historic?
In 1964, African-Americans and people designated as "colored" or "non-white" were barred from or restricted to designated sections in most public facilities in the South and quite a few in the North. Growing up in Decatur, Illinois, I remember being restricted to the balcony of one movie theater and denied entrance into another. The significance of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is that it outlawed apartheid or segregation. It was comprehensive, whereas the 1953 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was limited to public schools.
The act also addressed discrimination in public education, voting and employment opportunities and empowered the Civil Rights Commission. While it never fully achieved its goals of eliminating racial, color, gender, ethnic and other forms of discrimination, and has since been significantly compromised, it still, for a moment, produced a sea change in U.S. society. Black family incomes rose relative to the much higher incomes of whites, for instance, and unemployment rates fell. The fact that this trend has largely been reversed since the late 1970s doesn't undermine the act's significance.
The act was a century in the making. Most of its provisions appeared in the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875; however, those proved ineffective. The first failed due to lack of enforcement. The second was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
It also continues to reverberate in the present through how its opponents reconstructed U.S. politics after its passage. The consolidation of the Republican right and its domination of state legislatures and Congress are rooted in the response of white voters to the act. The success of President Nixon and Reagan's "southern strategy," which brought about the political realignment of white southerners and northern white workers in both parties, was predicated on hostility to the end of apartheid (or segregation) and to the civil rights movement's entire agenda. During his 1980 campaign, Reagan declared the Civil Rights Act "a bad piece of legislation."
How did the civil rights movement, then at its height, influence what was in the bill and its passage?
Many consider the Civil Rights Act - along with the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act - as the major accomplishments of the civil rights movement. Today the dominant narrative presents these accomplishments as the products of a broad consensus and of presidential and congressional action, yet it was highly contested legislation opposed by large sectors of white America. Dixiecrats in the Senate mounted a 75-day filibuster to delay its passage, and about 30 percent of the Senate and 25 percent of the House voted against it. It was also the product of a difficult and costly struggle, mounted overwhelmingly by African-Americans.
Nowhere was the disruptive and transformative power of the civil rights movement more on display than in Birmingham (Alabama) the previous spring (1963). There the reactive racist violence unleashed against activists appalled the country, sparking similar demonstrations in many cities. The spread of the movement created a crisis that forced the Kennedy administration to push for legislation. That summer the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom added additional pressure.
The violent nature of Birmingham was symbolic of the difficulty of the struggle. It's impossible to understand contemporary U.S. society, particularly the war on Afro-America - marginalization from work, voter suppression, police brutality, mass incarceration, etc. - without understanding the extent to which large sectors of white America contested the civil rights movement and continue working to reverse its accomplishments.
Given what the Civil Rights Act accomplished, why did Congress feel the need to pass another significant civil rights bill, the Voting Rights Act, just one year later?
Simply put, the Civil Rights Act required either the attorney general or a defendant to sue. In the year after the act's passage, the Justice Department would nullify one discriminatory policy and states would enact another in its place. Congress realized that addressing voting discrimination on a case-by-case basis was not effective. The Voting Rights Act was designed to be comprehensive and national in scope, and to target those communities with a demonstrated history of discrimination.
Thus, in many ways, the Voting Rights Act responded to a situation similar to what we've experienced over the last year, since the Supreme Court invalidated section 4 of that act. Scores of states have enacted discriminatory voting policies in an effort to suppress the impact of African-American and Latino voting. This explains why Congress is currently attempting to pass a new voting rights act that addresses the court's concerns.