Today in Civil Rights History: Civil Rights Act of 1964 becomes Law

Media 07.2.09

Forty-five years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex in public accommodations, employment, and federally funded programs.

It also established a framework within the federal government for combating discrimination by giving the U.S. Attorney General the power to file discrimination suits, expanding the mandate of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and establishing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to review employment discrimination complaints.

Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “Jim Crow” laws, or legalized racial segregation, characterized much of the South. In many states, Jim Crow laws relegated African Americans to the backs of buses and to separate drinking fountains, restrooms, and dining areas.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which held that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional, sparked the civil rights movement’s push toward desegregation and equal rights.

Harsh treatment of peaceful demonstrators throughout the South shocked the nation and led to civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, but intense opposition in the Senate resulted in laws that, while important milestones, did not give the federal government a strong mandate to enforce its anti-discrimination provisions.

After the Birmingham police reacted to a peaceful desegregation demonstration in May 1963 by using fire hoses and unleashing police dogs to break up thousands of demonstrators, President Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Act in a June 12 speech. “Are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other, that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes?” he said.

The new bill faced stiff opposition in Congress, as the previous bills did, but the assassination of President Kennedy, President Johnson’s lobbying efforts, and the historic March on Washington put tremendous pressure on Congress to pass the bill.

The House passed the bill on February 10, 1964 after 70 days of public hearings and testimony from more than 275 witnesses, but a 57-day filibuster prevented the Senate from voting. Finally, on June 10, 1964, the Senate voted to end the filibuster and passed the bill a week later.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the most sweeping civil rights legislation Congress has ever passed and paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, among other key laws.