The Civil Rights Act of 1964

by Andrea Faville

Third-grader Linda Brown trekked across Topeka, Kans., to school every day although a public elementary school was only seven blocks from her house. Linda made good grades. She was the right age. But she was not allowed through the door. Only white children could attend the school. Linda was black.

The year was 1951 — a full 83 years after the passage of the 13th and14th Amendments guaranteed equal rights to all American citizens, regardless of color. But institutionalized racism had been upheld by a series of “Jim Crow” laws, which forbade blacks to use the same schools, bathrooms, or even drinking fountains as whites. Nearly a century earlier, in 1896, the Supreme Court legitimized the racial discrimination in its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, the legal precedent for “separate but equal.”

Linda’s parents, along with 12 other families in the Topeka School District, challenged the premise of “separate but equal” schooling in a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education. On May 17, 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the parents. The justices ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional. Separating black children solely on the basis of race, the justices said, sent the message they were inferior — damage “never to be undone.”

In 1955, the Supreme Court strengthened its stance on school desegregation with “Brown II,” which demanded that schools integrate “with all deliberate speed.”

But racial integration remained bitterly divisive. in 1957, the bitterness boiled into violence when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the state National Guard unit to prevent nine students from enrolling at Little Rock’s Central High School. President Eisenhower responded by sending federal troops to protect the “Little Rock Nine,” as the students came to be called.

The Brown v. The Board of Education decision’s effect in public schools was slow but unmistakable. By 1976—just 15 years after the Browns and the other Topeka families began their fight, Southern schools were the most integrated in the nation. Nearly half of Southern black children attended majority-white schools.

Brown v. The Board of Education ruling left two major legacies: It changed the public school system for once-segregated children like Linda Brown. And it gave civil rights activ1955: Rosa Parks, seamstress and catalyst, refuses to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., to a white man — as the law requires Parks, who is black, to do. Her defiance sparks a boycott of the public bus system by African Americans led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The boycott all but shuts down the bus system, disrupts downtown business, and gives encouragement to black civil rights activists. They are harassed by police. King’s house is bombed.

1960: Four college students in Greensboro, N.C., order lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. When they are denied service at the whites-only lunch counter, they refuse to leave — as the law requires the students, who are black, to do. Angry white youths drag them from the store and pelt them with epithets and eggs.

1961: Thirteen passengers board buses in Washington, D.C., bound for the Deep South. Some of the passengers are white. Some are black. This is the first of what will become known as the “Freedom Rides,” carrying blacks and whites across state lines together to how far states will go to keep whites and blacks separate in public accommodations — a separation of the races that many state laws require. Twice, the Freedom Riders are attacked by angry white mobs. One of the buses is firebombed. The journey, and its violence, draws national attention to the South’s state-sanctioned segregation in public facilities.

Until 1964, now-infamous Jim Crow laws in many states segregated white and black Americans in almost all public facilities. By law, whites and blacks drank from separate water fountains; used separate public restrooms; watched movies in separate parts of the theater (often black Americans were relegated to the balcony); sat in separate waiting rooms for buses or for doctors; were buried in separate cemeteries. Many white-owned restaurants, hotels and service businesses simply refused to serve or hire African Americans. Under Jim Crow laws, they could legally do so.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the growing civil rights movement put increasing pressure on local, state and federal government officials to end state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education had declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. Next, civil rights activists targeted the segregation that permeated the rest of American society, especially in the Deep South. They staged sit-ins at lunch counters that wouldn’t serve blacks. They boycotted businesses that discriminated against them. They marched — often through screaming, violent white mobs; unprotected by white-dominated law enforcement officers — through Birmingham, Ala.; on Washington, D.C., and throughout the South.

The demonstrations, sit-ins and marches were vivid images on national television and horrifying stories in newsmagazines and newspapers. The coverage helped stir the nation’s conscience. In response to growing public pressure — and to carry forward the Kennedy administration’s civil rights promises — President Lyndon Johnson championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill faced considerable opposition in Washington, D.C., and inspired a record-setting 57-day debate on the Senate floor. It finally passed the Senate on June 19, 1964, on a vote of 73 to 27 and was sent to Johnson, who signed it into law on July 2.

The new law outlawed:

  •    Segregation in all public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants and theaters.
  •     Racial discrimination in public spaces including hotels and restaurants.
  •     Federal funding for programs that practiced discrimination.
  •     Discriminatory hiring practices in businesses with at least 25 employees.
  •     Unequal access to voter registration materials.

At the time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.

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