The Civil Rights Act
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made public segregation illegal and banned employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The road to the act’s passage was difficult, and much work still needs to be done to accomplish racial equality in the United States. Here, we’ll explore what led up to the Civil Rights Act, how it got its start, and how the act changed life in the United States for many people.
Content Last Updated: October 24, 2023
What was America like before the civil rights act of 1964?
Despite the Constitution’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the nation enslaved people for nearly a century after its inception. America’s civil rights history is difficult to process, as the country’s history of slavery, discrimination, and segregation were downright deadly for many. The United States was heavily dependent on slave labor to become an economic and military superpower. Many people in the U.S. were against the abolition of slavery. The barbaric practice remained the norm in the United States until it was outlawed in 1863.
Post-slavery America was rife with unfair laws and citizens who engaged in illegal practices to keep people of color from success. While the Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed thousands of slaves, state laws—known as Black Codes—made it impossible for freed slaves to fully participate in life as American citizens. These codes determined where Black people were allowed to live and work and also made Black people available for low-wage labor.
In addition to fighting unfair laws, former slaves who were newly freed people were typically left with nothing. After their ancestors were ripped from their homelands generations prior, people who knew nothing other than the life of a slave often struggled to buy property, earn a living, own a home, and gain legal equality.
Many Black Americans were forced to work as sharecroppers in a post-slavery nation. This meant they had to rent their land from white landowners and pay them a portion of their profits as rent. Much like during slavery, this meant that white landowners were getting money without doing any of the work—and Black farmers were struggling to put a roof over their heads due to the high cost of using someone else’s land.
Former slaves did not receive payment for their work while enslaved. In some areas of the South, former slaves worked to secure land from white landowners. The federal government returned the land to its original white owners. Republicans worked to develop a program that provided land to former slaves, but Congress stopped the movement.
Americans and Segregation: A Devastating Part of American History
Some people believe that the country was equal for both white and Black people following the abolition of slavery, but this was not the case. Racist attitudes and practices were (and still are, in many ways) prevalent in post-slavery United States. Many people felt that Black and white people could not exist within the same set of rules.
During the time of segregation in the United States, the government used the term “separate but equal” to describe the treatment of Black Americans. In reality, the programs, services, and treatment of Black people were far below what white people received.
Southern laws known as Jim Crow laws (named after a term that degraded Black Americans) segregated parks, neighborhoods, schools, restrooms, restaurants, mental health-care centers, hospitals, jails, public pools, waiting rooms, and more.
Some lawmakers worked to overturn segregation before the Civil Rights Act. In 1875, Republicans in Congress wrote and passed a Civil Rights Bill that stopped segregation in churches, schools, and public transportation. Most local municipalities did not enforce the bill, and the Supreme Court overturned the bill in 1883.
Life in the Mid-1900s for African American Citizens
By the middle of the 1900s, many Black people were beginning to move out of the South. Segregation and other social conditions became far worse in the Southern United States. Companies in Northern states began to thrive, and many Black people found work in the North. While this sounds like a positive change, many Northern companies were simply shifting from paying European immigrants low wages to paying Black Americans low wages. Some companies even sent recruiters to the South to help Black Americans move to Northern states to work for low wages.
While the pay for work in the North was higher than in the South, racial tensions continued to rise throughout the nation. Race riots began to take place as Black Americans and their advocates worked to take a stand against unfair treatment in the workplace, classroom, and beyond.
Brown vs. Board of Education
In 1954, the Supreme Court reached a landmark decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. The court deemed racial segregation of schools unconstitutional and ruled that Black children were able to attend traditionally white schools.
While this decision was historically significant, the change didn’t begin to affect most Black students for years. Actual desegregation of Southern schools (as well as some schools in the North) did not begin until the end of the 1960s.
Civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer fought tirelessly to change segregation laws in the United States. Many civil rights leaders spent time in jail for their commitment to their views. While some civil rights leaders urged followers to only use nonviolent means to get their point across, others encouraged followers to fight for their rights by any means necessary.
As racial tensions grew mid-century, some politicians took action to move civil rights forward.
Civil Rights Legislation: From Kennedy to Johnson
President John F. Kennedy’s term began in 1961. He did not start working toward changing civil rights laws right away. Violent protests in the South showed Kennedy that something needed to be done—quickly.
Kennedy first proposed new civil rights laws in June of 1963. The president stated that the nation could not be fully free when freedom only applied to some of its citizens. Shortly after this proclamation, Kennedy was assassinated. His vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, stepped into office and immediately continued Kennedy’s work toward changing civil rights laws in the United States.
During his first State of the Union address, Johnson said that the current Congress would do more for civil rights than any Congress had accomplished in the past. Many Southerners were upset at Johnson’s comments.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 caused a 70-day filibuster in Congress and included many racially motivated attempts to stop the act from moving forward. One senator from West Virginia—a former member of the KKK—spoke for 14 hours in an attempt to stop the Act from being passed.
The filibuster was eventually broken, and the Civil Rights Act became law in the United States in 1964.
Details of the Civil Rights Act
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 largely changed the way businesses and the government could treat Black people in America. Segregation was made illegal in hotels, sports arenas, theaters, professional offices, parks, and more. Under the act, businesses were no longer allowed to deny Black people service due to the color of their skin.
The Civil Rights Act largely affected employment law. Employers were no longer allowed to use national origin, gender, race, or religion as a reason for not hiring an applicant or firing a current employee. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created by the Johnson administration to provide help and support for workers who felt discriminated against in the workplace.
The Civil Rights Act also assisted the Office of Education in desegregating schools, as the decision of Brown vs. Board of Education largely went ignored in many districts. Students across the country began to see their educational opportunities change as they were no longer relegated to a single school choice due to their race.
While the Civil Rights Act is largely known for the changes it created for Black people living in America, others—including women and religious minorities—were also given additional rights due to the act. The Civil Rights Act was later amended to protect female college athletes and elderly people.
The Civil Rights Movement: An Ongoing Fight
While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a large stride in the right direction for racial equality in the United States, there was (and still is) much work to be done to stop discrimination.
Two significant laws followed the development of the Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed some of the racially motivated laws that stopped some Black Americans from voting (including literacy tests that were unfair and often impossible to pass). The Fair Housing Act of 1968 also helped put a stop to legal discrimination in financing, renting, and selling property.
America’s Response to the Civil Rights Act
While many people in the United States were happy the country was making moves toward equality, many were furious at the idea that Black people would legally have the same rights as white people. Some anger toward Black people following the act’s passage was quiet. White neighbors were unwelcoming in many cases, and Black students experienced unfair treatment even in desegregated schools. Other incidents of racial tension, however, were far more violent.
Racially motivated riots followed the Civil Rights Act passage in many areas. In 1966, some people who lived in Chicago felt that they had been misled and treated unfairly following Martin Luther King Jr. and the Chicago Freedom Movement’s negotiation with the city on fair housing practices. A march for equal rights took place in Cicero, Illinois, an area that had shown a deep sense of racial tension and segregation for decades. During the march, many protestors experienced violence from town residents. Bottles and bricks were thrown at people marching. Marchers did not take the violence sitting down—they picked up the bricks and bottles and threw them back at the town’s residents.
The following year, similar issues occurred in Detroit. When white residents learned that a Black person moved into their neighborhood, they would often stand outside the person’s home, protesting, breaking windows, and even lighting the house on fire. In 1967, police broke up a party in a Black Detroit neighborhood. The area was looted and ruined over five days. Forty-one people were left dead in the riot, and thousands of people found themselves homeless.
Today, racial tensions still abound in the United States, despite the efforts of many politicians to create peace and justice. Police brutality, discrimination, laws that favor white people, and unequal educational opportunities continue to make it harder for many Black people to rise in the United States.