Learning about America through primary sources: Civil Rights Act of 1964

October 28, 2021

This is part 9 in Sutherland’s new series highlighting primary sources from American history in the hopes of enriching civics education. To help teachers and students identify where to start with primary sources, this series looks at a limited selection that we believe are indispensable to understanding our nation’s government, history, and current circumstances. During this time, when much is being said about America’s history, our hope is that this series can encourage the use of primary sources to help students find context and understanding.

What is this primary source?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of legislation that prohibited discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and ended segregation in public places. It was also a signal achievement of the civil rights movement, led in part by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called its passage a “second emancipation.” The new law represented an end of the regime of legalized racial segregation, known as “Jim Crow laws.”

The legislation was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964, after a long-fought battle in Congress. A version of the act was first introduced in 1963 by then-President John F. Kennedy, who famously said of the legislation that the United States “will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.” 

Since its passage, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been expanded to protect other groups, including people who are disabled and women in college sports. It has also been found by the U.S. Supreme Court to prohibit employment discrimination against LGBT individuals.

Where did it come from in our history?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 primarily came from a desire to protect civil rights for African Americans. Though slavery had been abolished with the 13th Amendment, and the 14th and 15th amendments granted former slaves citizenship and the right for all males to vote, respectively, the United States still had a long way to go before African Americans (especially African American women) were treated equally legally and socially.

Even after these Reconstruction-era amendments – and also in response to them – state and local governments passed statutes and codes, nicknamed “Jim Crow laws,” aimed at denying civil rights to African Americans. Many of the Jim Crow laws segregated blacks and whites in a variety of venues, such as restaurants, bathrooms and public transportation, to name just a few. Other measures kept African Americans from being able to exercise their right to vote or to receive an education or to hold employment.

These laws spanned from the end of the Civil War through the 1960s, and increasingly, pushback grew against these racial injustices.

For example, in 1890, after being arrested for refusing to give up his seat to a white man, Homer Plessy challenged a Louisiana law that segregated blacks and whites on trains, arguing that the law violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Though he lost the case known as Plessy v. Ferguson before the Supreme Court under the court’s “separate but equal” doctrine, he would not be the last to challenge the constitutionality of Jim Crow laws. 

By 1952, five different cases, all which challenged segregation in public school, were consolidated into one Supreme Court case called Brown v. Board of Education. After the case slogged through a very divided court, Chief Justice Earl Warren finally handed down a unanimous decision that stated, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Just a few years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights act since the Reconstruction era. This law created a civil rights section of the Justice Department and a U.S. Civil Rights Commission to investigate racial discrimination.

Notwithstanding some progress, African Americans still suffered widespread injustices. In response, many civil rights leaders – including Martin Luther King Jr. – championed nonviolent protests, boycotts, and acts of civil disobedience as a way to build momentum for civil rights.

Still, the civil rights movement continued to be tumultuous nationwide. In response, Kennedy introduced a version of the Civil Rights Act in 1963. It was considered highly controversial and did not pass before his assassination. Johnson then restored efforts to pass the legislation and did so successfully, notwithstanding one of the longest filibusters in American history.

The same year that it passed, the act was challenged in the Supreme Court. In the case Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S., the court held that the law was constitutional.

Why is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 an important element of civics and history education?

The ongoing American story is most poignantly felt and found in its never-ending effort to fulfill its ideals. The Civil Rights Act – including the long road to its passage and, at times, inconsistent enforcement – is an important part of that arc. In its founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and its laws including the Civil Rights Act, the United States as a nation continues to stand and fight for the hope and ideal of equality, particularly with regard to race.

Just as any person or group of people regularly fails to perfectly attain its stated standards and ideals, the United States has regularly fallen short of its stated ideal of equality. But just as we would not discard a person or entire group of people because they are not perfect, we should not discard American ideals because they are not perfectly attained. In fact, it is exactly in the pursuit of racial equality that the United States has made its greatest racial gains, as the story of the Civil Rights Act illustrates.  

Younger generations are sometimes chided for being social media activists with little knowledge of history. To move beyond these criticisms and join the important conversations of today, students of history need to know the specifics of what the Civil Rights Act represented when it was enacted, where it came from, and what it has grown to mean since its passage. The area of civil rights is as relevant as ever today. Being equipped with this understanding allows students to be civically engaged in meaningful ways.

The full text of the Civil Rights Act can be found here.

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