A Guide to the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 outlawed the institution of slavery in the United States, guaranteeing the freedom of African-Americans. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, offered protection from discrimination. But these were only first steps, and the passage of these amendments would not mean an end to racial inequality. It would be almost 100 years before the next significant legislative step forward for civil rights, which came when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

The creation of the Civil Rights Act was not an easy or quick process. Attention was first turned to the varying state laws that had cropped up to allow substandard treatment of black Americans in the late 1800s. But in 1895, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation was legal: States could prevent black people from using certain public accommodations as long as “separate but equal” ones were provided for them.

Over the following decades, black people would continue to face barriers to equality across the nation, but following World War II, more and more people began to speak out against these inequalities. In 1954 came a landmark Supreme Court decision: In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the court found that segregation of public schools was counter to the 14th Amendment. The court ruled that racially divided facilities could never be seen as anything but unequal.

In the next decade, the conversation would continue with renewed fervor. Some progress toward equality was made in the late 1950s, and public outcry in the form of protests, marches, and industry boycotts put pressure on state and federal legislatures to do more. The national conflict over race and racism came to a head in 1963 with the deaths of activists Medgar Evers and William Moore as well as the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls are killed.

In June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a televised address outlining his proposal for a new civil rights law to protect all American citizens from discrimination. Kennedy also spoke directly with leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy’s goal was to ensure peaceful discussions and protests going forward, while the Civil Rights Act was reviewed in Congress. King and Kennedy became the faces of the Civil Rights Act, traveling across the country to promote its passage. With a young and popular commander-in-chief backing the push for equality, America seemed poised to welcome in a new era of acceptance.

Tragedy was soon to strike both the movement and the nation. In November 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Martin Luther King Jr. would offer his sympathies to the American people and urged the deceased politician’s fight for civil equality to be continued, saying, “The finest tribute that the American people can pay to the late President Kennedy is to implement the progressive policies that he sought to initiate in foreign and domestic relations.”

Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson, would assume the presidency, and he carried on with Kennedy’s efforts to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The bill worked its way through Congress, where it passed the House after dozens of alterations and much stonewalling. In the Senate, the bill was the subject of a 75-day filibuster, one of the longest in history, before its passage.

On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, flanked by an assembly of approving activists. The new law asserted that discrimination against any individual due to their race, sex, nationality, or religion would not be tolerated under state and federal law. To this day, the Civil Rights Act remains one of the strongest pieces of civil rights legislation in America.

To learn more about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its historical context, visit the links below: