Civil Rights Act’s anniversary calls for celebration, reflection


U.S. President Lyndon Johnson passes out some of the 72 pens he used to sign the civil rights bill in Washington D.C. on July 2, 1964. From left standing are, Rep. Roland Libobati (D-Ill.), Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. Emmanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) and Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League. 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

This week’s Civil Rights Summit, sponsored by the LBJ Library, marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That act, together with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, transformed American law and society by outlawing discrimination in the workplace, in the voting booth and in housing.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had two main provisions — a ban on discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin in public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, theaters and retail stores (Title II), and a ban on discrimination in the hiring, promotion and firing of workers (Title VII). The act also included provisions for enforcing Title VII in the form of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Before this act, employers and the owners of private establishments enjoyed the implicit approval of the federal government when they denied certain groups the privileges enjoyed by white men. During World War II, in some parts of the South, restaurant owners served meals to German prisoners of war who were being transported in the custody of American military officials but refused service to the black GIs who guarded those prisoners. Until 1964, employers routinely ran ads for job openings that said “no Negroes” or “no women” need apply. Many people of color, regardless of their formal education, could not aspire to high-paying jobs in law, business or education. African-Americans and Mexican-Americans remained confined to the most dangerous and disagreeable jobs in certain industries and excluded from whole categories of employment. White women inhabited a “pink collar ghetto” composed of elementary school teachers, nurses and secretaries and other clerical workers.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 looms large. In the months following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Johnson committed his formidable legislative prowess to bringing to a vote a measure that Kennedy had proposed in the summer of 1963. Johnson enlisted civil rights activists, journalists and other allies, and he personally cajoled, intimidated, threatened and pleaded with members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike.  He believed that, as chief executive, he need not apologize for his commitment to legislation that would make the U.S. a more fair and just society: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” he demanded to know.

Yet Johnson’s moral convictions, combined with his strong-armed tactics, do not fully account for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The president and other white Americans were moved by the courage of civil rights activists throughout the South — men, women and children who suffered beatings at the hands of angry mobs, the full force of water cannons deployed by local police and even murder by KKK members and other vigilantes and domestic terrorists. Freedom Riders, participants in lunch counter sit-ins and peaceful demonstrators, prodded Kennedy, and then Johnson and Congress, to act.

The effects of the 1964 act were uneven. Well-educated people of color and white women were arguably the most immediate and obvious beneficiaries of the new law. Between 1960 and 1980, the percentage of black women in clerical work tripled, and women of all races had greater access to jobs such as truck driving and coal mining,  which were previously all-male positions. Still, employers continued to assign blacks and other minorities to menial jobs, and union seniority and apprenticeship rules continued to work against the interests of job-seekers who weren’t white males. In 1974, the chronically understaffed and underfunded Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was staggering under the weight of 57,000 complaints of discrimination in the workplace.

Civil rights legislation also affected the nation’s political landscape. When he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, Johnson reportedly told his young Texas aide Bill Moyers something to the effect of, “There goes the South.” He was correct in predicting that the white South would desert the Democratic Party, although that transition did not become fully apparent until the 1980s, and it shows no sign of reversing itself in the near future.

Today, some observers hail what they call a “colorblind” society — one with a level playing field for all workers and voters. Yet the corrosive effects of centuries of slavery, discrimination and segregation remain very much in evidence, with high rates of concentrated poverty among minority populations. For many Americans, the place where they live is a signifier of the rights they enjoy, with poor people lacking access to quality public education, safe neighborhoods and decent health care.

What lessons does the Civil Rights Act of 1964 hold for us today? First, it is apparent that the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution granting the former male slaves citizenship and voting rights were insufficient to guarantee them and their descendants those rights in practice.

Not until after World War II would the dramatic and peaceful protests of an aggrieved minority pierce the conscience of the nation and lead to decisive action among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. Johnson’s bold determination demonstrated what a chief executive could accomplish, with the right combination of moral outrage and legislative arm-twisting. And finally, we are reminded that throughout American history the federal government, albeit haltingly and imperfectly, has initiated some of the most significant measures promoting fairness and justice — the destruction of slavery, the enfranchisement of former slaves and women, the elimination of universal poverty among the elderly and the outlawing of egregious forms of discrimination in the workplace, in voting and in housing. The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is without a doubt a cause for celebration among all Americans, and it is most fitting that four presidents are gathering at the LBJ Library to lead us in that celebration.

Jones is the Walter Prescott Webb chair in history and ideas and the Mastin Gentry White professor of Southern history.