Four Pillars of American Democracy Built by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington D.C. I took this picture on my first trip to D.C.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was the most significant cultural and political revolution to advance the rights of Black Americans and other oppressed minorities towards equality in America since the end of the Civil War, including Mexicans segregated in Texas, women discriminated at work, Asians discriminated at the border, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people discriminated in employment. Civil Rights leaders achieved these advances because they pushed for political and legal change. Changes that would mature our democracy towards a more perfect union.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), along with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), UDL (Urban Defense League), SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and other leading Civil Rights organizations used their powers to strategically shape American law.

Civil Rights leaders held a twofold strategy regarding legal rights:

1) Enforce existing Civil Rights law.

2) Enact new Civil Rights law.

The first half of this strategy simply demanded governments at the federal, state, and local level enforce desegregation already promised. Black leaders and marchers encountered fierce resistance from white segregationists in the form of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence.

MLK and Civil Rights leaders fought for all of us to dismantle all forms of discrimination. Russell Lee/Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

It would be a long bloody road that must still be navigated today.

The second half of this strategy built four major pillars of Civil Rights legislation that dramatically remodeled American life and society. Renovations our democracy was in desperate need of since its founding.

The four pillars are:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

- Ban discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and nationality in employment and public accommodations across the nation.

Black leaders meet with JFK to lobby for Civil Rights legislation. Library of Congress

Civil Rights Acts banning discrimination across America were attempted before in the 1860s and 1870s immediately following the aftermath of the Civil War. However, the Court would strike these federal initiatives down as “unconstitutional”. The Court’s twisted reasoning relied on “state action” doctrine which forbade the federal government from shielding its own citizens from discrimination from private actors — despite the fact that the discrimination was enforced and sanctioned by the state. Additionally, the Court ignored that the 14th Amendment empowered the government to protect the rights of its own citizens through its Enforcement Clause. And when the state did engage in discrimination — such as segregation — the Court upheld this under the twisted doctrine of “separate but equal”. This strategy employed by white supremacists in the 1800s is still used today: Discrimination is either out of the reach for the government to police or it is “equal” anyways.

However, the Civil Rights Act of the 1963 drew its power from an obscure clause in the U.S. Constitution: The Interstate Commerce Clause: because the government could regulate commerce, the government could ban discrimination.

Black leaders lobby LBJ to pass Civil Rights legislation. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Interstate Commerce Clause is not as powerfully demanding as the 14th Amendment requiring equality under the law, but effective, nonetheless.

We would take it.

This First Pillar was responsible for tearing down discrimination in employment and ending segregation under Jim Crow. Segregation that not only targeted Black Americans but Hispanic Americans as well. This act would go through the same troubles of enforcement Civil Rights leaders were already dealing with because of white backlash but would nonetheless redirect America towards the righteous path of justice.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

- 1) Ban racial discrimination against registering people of color to vote 2) Ban racial discrimination against allowing people of color to vote and 3) block states and localities from enacting racially discriminatory voting laws including racial gerrymandering.

The Second Pillar, the Voting Rights Act, was the most powerful tool of legislation to enforce voting rights, ever. The 15th Amendment promising the right to vote for men of color (it left out women) was watered down and weakened by the Court leaving it powerless to guarantee voting rights. However — by the power of the Voting Rights Act — discriminatory practices against voters of color would be dismantled. Practices such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and other forms of “race neutral” laws that targeted racial minorities in America would be prohibited by federal law.

John Lewis was beaten unconscious on a march to register to vote. Days later, President Johnson urged Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. AP Photo

Unfortunately, as recent as the last two decades, conservative justices have gutted and defanged the Voting Rights Act under the guise that discrimination has ended, and anti-discrimination enforcement is both unfair to states and unnecessary. This was the same strategy and false logic employed by white supremacists prior to the Voting Rights Act and upheld by the Court in the late 1800s.

Now, the Court routinely upholds discriminatory practices by states claiming their “race neutral” language absolves them of any racially discriminatory intent or effect. By doing so, conservative justices accept the argument from the late 1800s that the 15th Amendment cannot shield a citizen’s voting rights — despite the 15th Amendment’s Enforcement Clause granting Congress broad powers to protect voting rights.

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law. LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi Okamoto

As of now, conservative justices backed by Republican politicians succeeded in gutting and defanging the most powerful tool against voter discrimination in American history. They used the same arguments white supremacists used then: This is unnecessary, and the discriminatory laws make no mention of race, therefore the discriminatory effect is a “coincidence”.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

- End racial discrimination in our immigration laws.

The Third Pillar, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, did not face as much opposition by white racists as did the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act — both of which were filibustered, an arcane Jim Crow relic still used today to block advancements of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. So why were white supremacists okay with a law that would dramatically alter America’s image? Because they believed they were getting the upper hand.

After the Immigration Act of 1965, immigration from non-European countries expanded dramatically. But white racists thought by adding a clause prioritizing family of immigrants they could keep the nation “white” because most immigrants came from European countries at that time. The white segregationists were wrong, and quotas that prioritized immigrants of European countries no longer existed to block family members of immigrants from non-European countries. Additionally, the Immigration Act allowed more immigrants based on skills many believe contribute to American society. Those two prongs enabled more immigrants of color to move to America and settle in their new home.

Naturalized citizens take the oath. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It was an act not believed to be as monumental as it evolved into, but it shaped America into a nation of immigrants no longer exclusively based on the color of their skin. The gates blocking people of color from entering were opened just enough for them to enjoy the fruits of liberty we all take for granted.

However, because of this, many racists today whine of the change in “demographics” — a dog whistle to mean racial minorities — that are taking over America and “replacing” white Americans. Immigrants of color from all over the world including Latin America and Asia are scapegoated and demonized in an effort to defend white supremacy. Instead, immigrants have improved our nation, bolstering its economic power, increasing its global standing, empowering intellectual achievements, and enabling hard-working people across the world to find refuge in a nation that has promised sanctuary from oppression since its founding.

The Fourth Pillar of the Civil Rights Movement would not arrive until after Martin Luther King’s death.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968

- Ban discrimination based on race, religion, and national origin on the sale, rental, and financing of the housing market.

Image taken from Harvard Civil Rights — Civil Liberties Review website.

One of the most effective methods to build wealth is through home ownership. A fact recognized by many; especially racial minorities excluded from the process. Housing discrimination entrenched segregation into American society with mechanisms that permitted and encouraged banks, housing markets, and private sellers to discriminate against people of color.

It was not until Martin Luther King’s assassination that Congress was propelled to pass this act over objections it was “reverse discrimination” against white people — a frequent false claim against Civil Rights legislation used by white supremacists to defend structural racism and the status quo.

The Fair Housing Act empowered those discriminated against to seek remedies in court. And that Equal Housing sticker you see banks and lenders use is because of this act.

While discrimination in housing still continues — such as the type of discrimination uncovered from the 2007 financial crisis — this piece of legislation gave power to the powerless. But, these gains continue to be attacked in a racial appeal to white voters’ fears of racial minorities.

In 2015, the Obama Administration implemented rules for federal agencies to address housing discrimination; in 2020 — in a racist appeal to white voters — the Trump Administration repealed the rule citing it as federal overreach in the same manner Civil Rights legislation was cited as federal overreach by white segregationists. The fear of racial minorities “taking over” white suburban neighborhoods drove racist policies then as they do now.

We Must Uphold These Four Pillars of Achievements

A major part of Martin Luther King’s legacy were these Four Pillars of legislation remodeling our democracy for justice and equality.

These four legislative achievements could not have been won without the tireless efforts of millions of Americans — especially Black Americans — in marching, protesting, and civil disobedience. And since their inception in the 1960s, these acts have expanded their protections to women, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community. These achievements laid the groundwork for others to build upon.

Martin Luther King’s Legacy is more than the cultural and moral lessons he bestowed upon us, his legacy includes these Four Pillars. Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

There are three significant moments in American history that revolutionized our form of government: The American Revolution, the Civil War, and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Each of these moments dramatically shaped our nation for a brighter future. However, these advancements in human rights are still fragile, as evidenced by justices overturning legislation built from the Civil Rights Movement, politicians eroding existing laws and blocking new Civil Rights legislation, and Republican politicians spreading lies of a stolen election eroding the very foundations of democracy built after the American Revolution.

Those opposed to the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King’s legacy, and our democratic form of government utilize the same strategies white supremacists have used to attack democracy and Civil Rights of Americans. We must remain vigilant in upholding the promises of this nation and securing our liberties for all. And to do so requires us to be educated in where these liberties are derived from; be it our ideals, our Constitution, or our legislation.

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.

U.S. Army Veteran. M.A. International Relations from University of Chicago. Voter. Volunteer. I write to inform my friends as best I can.