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What You Need to Know About the Civil Rights Act

A gavel - Learning about the Civil Rights Act

By Logan Chamberlain

When people discuss the Civil Rights Act, they almost universally mean the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first thing you need to know is that this is not the only important Civil Rights Act passed in the United States: there are also the Civil Rights Acts of 1968, 1957, 1875, and 1866. But the 1964 act is the most famous for a reason.

Who
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was introduced by Emanuel Celler (D–NY) and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was passed with major bipartisan support, though the Democrats in Congress were fairly split on the issue. It was supported by black civil rights leaders, especially Martin Luther King, Jr.

When
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 came near the height of the civil rights movement, signed into law by President Johnson. This moment of cooperation between the federal government and civil rights leaders marked an important shift in the expansion of rights for black Americans and for women. This would lead to the equally important Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Why
Notwithstanding reasons of public morality, what about the time and the people led to the passage of the bill? The increasing (and televised) aggression of segregationist politicians and police pushed public opinion towards the side of activists. The public unrest posed a problem for the government, and so decisive action was called for—one can debate what racist ideas he held, but President Johnson was a longtime opponent of the KKK and certain Southern Democrats. These two factors bolstered the monumental efforts of black activists in overturning segregation laws.

How
The passage and implementation of the Act was difficult, despite the support of the administration. Segregationists challenged integration at every level. The biggest push came in the court case of Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964); the owner of the whites-only motel sued the national government, claiming that the new Civil Rights Act overreached Congress’s constitutional powers. The Supreme Court quickly ruled that because his accommodations affected interstate travelers, it fell under Congress’s power to regulate commerce between the States. This decision would be vital in passing and protecting all future civil rights legislation.

What
The Civil Rights Act has three essential components. The first is that it declares women a suspect class, meaning that they have certain legal protections against discrimination. The second is that it outlaws segregation in public accommodations, schools, and employment. The third is that it outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

For the full text of the law, go to: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/thelaw/civil_rights_act.html

For more about the creation and passage of the bill, go to: https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/civil-rights-movement/essays/civil-rights-movement-major-events-and-legacies