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Nation Celebrates Anniversary Of Landmark Civil Rights Law
1964 Civil Rights Act 40 Years Old

By Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File, June 24, 2004


2004 marks the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2 of that year, it declared illegal certain long-practiced forms of discrimination, authorized the government to act against others and, perhaps most significantly, demonstrated a political consensus to wield federal authority against legal inequity "on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin."

In a nationally televised address that evening, Johnson declared:

"We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.

"We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.

"We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings--not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.

"The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand -- without rancor or hatred -- how all this happened.

"But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it."
Historical Background

Although the effort to secure the civil rights of all Americans focuses on several historically disadvantaged groups, it is associated most prominently with African-Americans. The "Reconstruction" decade that followed the Civil War of 1861-65 saw the enactment of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These ended slavery, afforded individuals a number of protections against the states -- most significant was an entitlement to "equal protection of the laws" -- and barred the denial or abridgement of the right to vote "on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude." (This right would not be extended to women until the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920.) Each of these amendments authorized Congress to enforce its terms by passing "appropriate legislation." This was crucial, for the U.S. federal system of government considered most forms of discrimination a matter of state law and hence not subject to federal remedy.

The northern Republicans who dominated Congress during Reconstruction possessed the political will to enact such remedies. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, for instance, prohibited the racial segregation of public facilities and accommodations like theaters, hotels and restaurants. For a number of reasons, the consensus favoring such laws quickly ebbed. Many white Southerners were determined to hold African-Americans in a subordinate role. When the election of 1876 left control of the federal government closely contested, it enhanced those Southerners' influence, and Reconstruction came to an end. The rules of the United States Senate allowed any one Senator to "filibuster," or hold the floor until two-thirds (today, sixty percent) of Senators present voted "cloture." This ensured that members from the segregationist South could prevent a vote even on civil rights legislation favored by a Congressional majority. The Supreme Court also was inclined to interpret Constitutional language narrowly and in favor of "states' rights" rather than federal power. In Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883), the Supreme Court declared the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional.

Even though some Americans continued to fight for more expansive civil rights protections, only a broad political consensus could overcome the racial segregation that prevailed in much of the South. It took several generations, and a number of new developments, to produce that consensus. After the second World War, Black migration to the northern states gradually increased political pressure on officeholders there, Northern Democrats in particular, to back civil rights legislation against the objections of pro-segregation Southern Democrats. Segregation was an embarrassing contradiction of American ideals even as the U.S. courted other nations' support during the Cold War. The Supreme Court began to rethink its earlier, pinched interpretation of Constitutional civil rights guarantees, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), which declared unconstitutional the racial segregation of public schools. The contrast between the non-violent civil rights movement and its opponents' often savage response convinced growing numbers of Americans that justice required effective legal guarantees. On June 11, 1963, with the telecast images of Birmingham, Alabama, police turning clubs, fire hoses and dogs on civil rights demonstrators still fresh, President John F. Kennedy told the nation "the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and else-where have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them." Eight days later, Kennedy sent to Congress the bill that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


The months that followed saw intense Congressional fact-finding and debate, culminating in a closely fought Senate battle to halt the longest civil rights filibuster in American history. The House of Representatives held over 70 days of public hearings, during which some 275 witnesses offered nearly six thousand pages of testimony. At the end of this process, the House passed the bill by a 290--130 vote.

A solid majority of Senators also favored passage, but a two-thirds supermajority was needed to halt the inevitable filibuster. That filibuster would last for 57 days, during which time the Senate could conduct virtually no other business. As the speeches continued (one senator carried a 1,500 page speech onto the floor), President Johnson and a variety of labor, religious and civil rights groups lobbied for cloture and a final vote. They accepted a number of amendments (many to enhance the enforcement role of states and private lawsuits, as opposed to the federal efforts) to secure the last few votes needed to reach two-thirds. Finally, on June 10, 1964, the Senate voted 71--29 to end debate -- the first time cloture had ever been successfully invoked in a civil rights matter. A week later the Senate passed its version of the civil rights bill. On July 2, 1964, the House of Representatives agreed to the Senate version, sending the bill to the White House. President Johnson's signature made it law.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is organized by broad provisions or "Titles." The major points include Title I, which abolished unequal application of voter registration requirements. Title II prohibited discrimination in public accommodations. It authorized individuals to file lawsuits to obtain injunctive relief (a court order ordering someone to do or not to do something) and allowed the attorney general of the United States to intervene in those lawsuits he deemed "of general public importance." Where an aggrieved person was unable himself or herself to maintain such a lawsuit, Title III authorized the U.S. attorney general to file one, provided the case would "materially further the orderly progress of desegregation in public facilities." Title IV authorized the attorney general to file suit to force the desegregation of public schools. This provision aimed to accelerate the slow progress made during the decade since Brown. Title VI extended the act's provisions to "any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance" and authorized the federal government to withhold federal funds from any such program that practiced discrimination. Title VII prohibited discrimination in employment in any business employing more than 25 people and established the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to review complaints.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act is a key moment in U.S. history because it represents Americans' collective decision to harness federal power to the civil rights struggle. The majority consensus and strong political coalitions that passed the "'64 Act" would also give us the 1965 Voting Rights Act , the numerous public and private lawsuits that struck at the legacies of segregation, and the many initiatives that mark our continuing progress toward and determination to achieve a truly just society.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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Updated: June 2004