Legislative Achievements of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands over President Johnson’s shoulder as he signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office (WHPO)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

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

Initially introduced into Congress by the Kennedy Administration, the Civil Rights Act stalled because segregationists utilized the filibuster to block Civil Rights legislation. Just the same as today. In fact, racist politicians introduced “sex” alongside “race” as a protected category from discrimination. Their goal was not to expand Civil Rights; their goal was to kill the bill by expanding it — too much. Liberal politicians embraced this expansion of women’s rights and kept the amendment.

Little Rock protest, 1959. Wikimedia/John T. Bledsoe

White backlash accused the government of “forced integration”. Religious arguments were deployed arguing God “did not intend for the races to mix”. White nationalists even attempted to declare this act unconstitutional, but failed when the Supreme Court upheld the act. Racist Americans paint themselves as victims of government overreach instead of abandoning their prejudices.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Civil Rights Acts banning discrimination across America were passed in the 1860s and 1870s. However, the Supreme Court struck down these federal laws. The Court argued the government had no power to ban discrimination by “private” actors — despite the fact that “private” discrimination was enforced by the police, by the state. And when states did engage in racial discrimination — such as segregation — the Court upheld these racist policies under the twisted logic that they were “separate but equal”.

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

However, the Civil Rights Act of the 1964 draws its power from an obscure clause in the U.S. Constitution: The Interstate Commerce Clause. Anti-racist legislators argued that the government could regulate commerce therefore, the government can ban discrimination in economic activities.

This clause is not as powerfully demanding or symbolic as the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause which gives Congress broad authority to combat discrimination. But it is effective nonetheless.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law July 2nd, 1964.

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