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You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Equality: 55 Years of Civil Rights


On this day 55 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during the height of the civil rights movement. Originally proposed by President John F. Kennedy, the act prohibited discrimination, ended racial segregation, created equal employment opportunity, and more. Join HeinOnline as we explore the evolution of the act, the efforts that went into its passage, and its ultimate impact.

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Civil Rights Legislation in HeinOnline

Previous Civil Rights Legislation

Following the end to slavery in 1865, many states continued to keep African Americans ostracized from society through strict segregation as well as violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, despite winning the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, African Americans found themselves essentially disenfranchised through state literacy tests, poll taxes, and other measures.

Civil rights were largely ignored by the federal government until the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first federal civil rights legislation since 1875. In response to Southern outcry after the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1957 act was signed into law by President Eisenhower to protect the voting rights of African Americans. Though the act made little immediate impact, it established the U.S.  Commission on Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. View the legislative history of the act in HeinOnline’s U.S. Federal Legislative History Library.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 had several loopholes, however, and Southern states were still able to discriminate against African Americans in employment, segregation, and voter registration applications. Also signed into law by President Eisenhower, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 sought to eliminate some of these loopholes by punishing those who attempted to obstruct a person’s vote, and by establishing federal inspection of voter registration polls. View the legislative history of this act in HeinOnline’s Legislative History Library, as well.

John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Work

Faced with protests from Southern progressives, John F. Kennedy proposed the most comprehensive civil rights legislation to date in his Report to the American People on Civil Rights. Kennedy’s proposal included the banning of discrimination in public accommodations and provisions for desegregation, among other changes. Find the full speech in HeinOnline’s U.S. Presidential Library by entering the full name of the report in the main search bar.

In June of 1963, Kennedy sent his bill to Congress where it was discussed in a series of hearings. By November of that year, after overcoming numerous obstacles, the bill had won the endorsement of Republican senators. The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, however, placed the bill in the hands of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Learn more about the assassination of John F. Kennedy with HeinOnline’s John F. Kennedy Assassination Collectionfree for U.S. Academic Core and HeinOnline Academic subscribers.

Efforts of the Johnson Administration

Following Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson used his first address to Congress on November 27, 1963 to appeal for their passage of the bill, stating that “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Users can find Lyndon B. Johnson’s appeal to Congress in the U.S. Presidential Library. Enter “lyndon b. johnson” AND “address” AND “november 27, 1963” into the main search bar to bring up the address as the first result.

President Johnson hoped to pass the bill as soon as possible, but given the amount of opposition from the Senate Judiciary Committee, it seemed unlikely that the bill would even reach the Senate. In an unprecedented move, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield waived a second reading of the bill but later gave the bill a second reading anyway. Because precedent was lacking for such a situation, Mansfield proposed that the bill bypass the Judiciary Committee.

After 54 days of filibuster from 18 southern Democractic Senators and one Republican Senator, a compromise bill was introduced. At 60 days, the Senate was able to—for the first time ever—garner enough votes to shut down a filibuster on a civil rights bill. On June 19 of 1964, the bill passed both houses of Congress and was later signed into law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2 of the same year. View the legislative history of the act in HeinOnline’s Legislative History Library.

Reaction and Impact

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 significantly empowered the civil rights movement which had evolved over a century of injustices. African Americans and other minorities could no longer be segregated or denied service based on their race, religion, or national origin. Employers and labor unions were additionally prohibited from discrimination on the grounds of race, religious, national origin, and gender. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was also established to administer and enforce employment-related civil rights laws. Furthermore, the act bolstered the Commission on Civil Rights, authorized the Department of Education to encourage school desegregation, and banned the unequal application of voting requirements.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also laid the groundwork for two important laws: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (prohibiting discriminatory voting procedures such as literacy tests) and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (prohibiting discrimination in sale, rent, or finance of property).

Many questioned the constitutionality of such federal interference in the private sector. Claiming violations of the FifthThirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments, the issue was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964). In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ruling that Congress drew its authority from the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 8 Commerce Clause.  View the case in HeinOnline’s Supreme Court Library. Enter heart of atlanta motel v. united states without quotations into the main search bar to view the case as the first result.

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