The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were landmark pieces of legislation that addressed major forms of discrimination.
Examine the passage and significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the most far-reaching civil rights act yet passed by Congress; it banned discrimination in public accommodations, aided schools in desegregation, and prohibited federal funding of programs that permitted racial segregation.
Further, the act barred discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or gender, and established an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Kennedy had fought hard during his presidency for this legislation; following his assassination, the bill was quickly passed by the newly inaugurated President Johnson, partially as a tribute to Kennedy's legacy.
This act was soon followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices.
Despite the legislative achievements of both of these acts, they did not alleviate the widespread poverty, nor the persistence of violence against African Americans.
The 38th Vice President of the United States, serving under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted on July 2, 1964, was a landmark piece of legislation. The most far-reaching civil rights act yet passed by Congress, it banned discrimination in public accommodations, sought to aid schools in efforts to desegregate, and prohibited federal funding of programs that permitted racial segregation. Further, it barred discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or gender, and established an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The government's powers to enforce the act were initially weak, but were augmented by later legislation. Congress asserted its authority to legislate about civil rights under three parts of the United States Constitution: its power to regulate interstate commerce under Article One (section eight), its duty to guarantee all citizens equal protection of the laws (under the Fourteenth Amendment), and its duty to protect voting rights (under the Fifteenth Amendment). The Act was initiated by President John F. Kennedy and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, marking perhaps the most important domestic achievement of his Great Society program. The bill would soon be followed by the equally momentous Voting Rights Act, which effectively ended the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South.
President Kennedy's Legacy
President John F. Kennedy called for a Civil Rights Act in his speech about civil rights on June 11, 1963. Kennedy asked for legislation "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments," as well as "greater protection for the right to vote." Kennedy's civil rights bill included provisions to ban discrimination in public accommodations and to enable the U.S. Attorney General to launch lawsuits against state governments that operated segregated school systems. However, it did not include a number of provisions deemed essential by civil rights leaders, including protection against police brutality, ending discrimination in private employment, or granting the Justice Department power to initiate desegregation or initiate job discrimination lawsuits.
In late November of 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy changed the political situation. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, utilized his experience in legislative politics and his pulpit as president to support the bill. In his first address to Congress on November 27, 1963, Johnson told the legislators, "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."
The Passage of the Bill
Johnson, who wanted the bill passed as soon as possible, ensured that the bill would be quickly considered by the Senate. The bill came before the full Senate for debate on March 30, 1964, and the "Southern Bloc" of 18 southern Democratic senators and one Republican senator, led by Richard Russell, launched a filibuster to prevent its passage. Russell stated, "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states." The bill finally passed with six wavering senators providing a four-vote victory margin; the final tally stood at 71 to 29. Never in history had the Senate been able to muster enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill.
The bill divided and engendered a long-term change in the demographics of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. President Johnson realized that supporting this bill would risk losing the South's overwhelming support of the Democratic Party. Although majorities in both parties voted for the bill, there were notable exceptions. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona voted against the bill, remarking, "You can't legislate morality." Goldwater had supported previous attempts to pass Civil Rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, as well as the 24th Amendment outlawing the poll tax; however, he rejected the idea of the national government regulating such acts.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
Protecting African Americans’ right to vote was as important as ending racial inequality in the United States. In January 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, prohibiting the imposition of poll taxes on voters, was finally ratified. Poverty would no longer serve as an obstacle to voting. Other impediments remained, however, especially in the form of violence and resistance from white voters.
In an effort to address this violence, Johnson introduced a bill in Congress that would remove obstacles for African American voters and lend federal support to their cause. His proposal, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibited states and local governments from passing laws that discriminated against voters on the basis of race. Literacy tests and other barriers to voting that had kept ethnic minorities from the polls were thus outlawed. Following the passage of the act, a quarter of a million African Americans registered to vote, and by 1967, the majority of African Americans had done so.
Effects of the Acts
The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act changed the lives of African Americans and transformed society in many ways. While Congress played an important role by passing the Acts, the actions of civil rights groups, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), were instrumental in forging new paths, pioneering new techniques and strategies, and achieving breakthrough successes. Civil rights activists engaged in sit-ins, freedom rides, and protest marches, and registered African American voters. Despite the movement’s many achievements and the advancements of legislation, however, many grew frustrated with the slow pace of change, the failure of the Great Society to alleviate poverty, and the persistence of violence against African Americans, particularly the tragic 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Attempts to register southern African American voters continued to encounter white resistance, and protests against this interference often met with violence. Images of white brutality appeared on television screens throughout the nation and in newspapers around the world.