The Ballot or the Bullet

The Ballot or the Bullet About the 1964 Civil Rights Act

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a pivotal civil-rights and labor law that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. It banned segregation in public accommodations and facilities such as schools, libraries, theaters, restaurants, and hotels, as well as in employment practices. Further, it expanded the Civil Rights Commission that had been established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Finally, the bill barred unequal application of voting rights, although it did not eliminate literacy tests or other measures used to deny black citizens their right to vote on the basis of voter “qualification.” It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that these widespread practices were mostly abolished.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act is considered to be a crowning achievement of the civil rights movement, and has been touted as the most influential piece of anti-discriminatory legislation since the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which emancipated slaves, granted them citizenship, and gave them the right to vote, respectively. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was nothing less than a “second emancipation.”

Initially proposed by President John F. Kennedy in his Report to the American People on Civil Rights on June 11, 1963, it faced severe opposition from members of the Republican and Democratic parties. The bill survived a 75-day filibuster by southern segregationist senators, the introduction of an amendment to ban employment discrimination against women meant to foster further opposition, and the assassination of President Kennedy himself. After 54 days of filibustering, Senators Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirksen, and Thomas Kutchel introduced an amended bill that limited governmental power to regulate the conduct of private businesses in an effort to swing Republican votes. After extended behind-the-scenes horse-trading (or political negotiation of reciprocal concessions), this substitute bill was passed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2nd, 1964.

Notably, the bill failed to address issues of protection against police brutality and discriminatory practices in private employment, and did not grant the Justice Department the power to initiate desegregation or job discrimination lawsuits.