Civil Rights Act of 1964
Factors which Encouraged Enactment of Civil Rights Act
- Large-scale demonstrations -- especially the involvement of white demonstrators in the Freedom Rides
- John Kennedy’s assassination
- Lyndon Johnson’s ascendancy to the presidency
- The demographic numbers that indicated a switch in white public opinion in favor of civil rights legislation
- Bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham
- Medger Evers’ assassination
- March on Washington
Why was an act needed?
- Upon entering the White House, Kennedy had not intended to enact legislation to elevate the African American in American life. His plan was to expand executive action, especially in those areas where federal authority was most complete. He also planned to exert "moral leadership," which he had referred to during his campaign.
- On June 11, 1963, on the same day that National Guardsmen had been used to secure the admission of two African Americans to the University of Alabama, Kennedy said in a nationally televised speech, "We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your state and local legislative bodies and, above all, in all of our daily lives." (for text and audio of speech, click here)
- Kennedy instructed his brother, Robert, who was the Attorney General, to lead the Justice Dept. to secure the right to vote through negotiation and litigation. He also created the Committee on Equal Opportunity in Housing and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- There were about as many demonstrations in the North and West as in the South. The emphasis was on increased job opportunities and an end to de facto segregation in housing and education.
- It was the most far-reaching and comprehensive law in support of racial equality ever enacted by Congress.
- It gave the Attorney General additional power to protect citizens against discrimination and segregation in voting, education, and the use of public facilities.
- Forbade discrimination in most places of public accommodation and established a federal Community Relations Service to help individuals and communities solve civil rights problems.
- Established a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and extended the life of the Commission on Civil Rights to January 1968.
- Eliminated discrimination in federally assisted programs, authorizing termination of programs or withdrawal of federal funds upon failure to comply.
- U.S. Office of Education was authorized to provide technical and financial aid to assist communities in the desegregation of schools.
- Noticeably absent was any treatment of voting rights or easing voting restrictions.
- Whites in the North now faced direct action protests in greater number and increased severity for the first time. The most common complaint of whites was that blacks were pushing "too hard" and "too fast" for equality.
- George Wallace, the racist demagogue governor of Alabama--whose best friend later in life, he emphasized, was a black man--ran for president in 1964 (as well as 1968, 1972, and 1976) and had a good showing in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland, in addition to the Deep South. (After an evangelical conversion experience in the late 1970s, Wallace apologized for his earlier segregationist rhetoric and actions, and appointed large numbers of blacks to state office in Alabama.)
- Some public places in the South became private clubs in an effort to avoid having to accommodate blacks, as a public institution would have.
- Blacks, on the other hand, became tired of waiting for change and stepped up the pressure.
- There were disturbances, often accompanied by violence, in the Yorkville section of New York City; Rochester, NY; Paterson, Elizabeth, and Jersey City, NJ; Philadelphia; and Chicago. None of the disturbances stemmed from a protest as many had in the South, instead it seemed as if they were caused by frustration over the slow process of change.
The McGhees of Mississippi
- Perhaps nothing better describes the unwillingness to be patient than the McGhees of Greenwood, MS -- people who out-SNCC'ed SNCC. Bob Zellner of SNCC recalled: "pound for pound and person for person, the McGhees -- and I include Silas and Jake and Mrs. McGhee and Clarence -- were the bravest people I have ever met in my life. They simply just didn’t take any shit. Not only didn’t they take no shit, they gave shit out -- in massive doses. They were going to do their thing no matter what happened. . . . You can’t even shoot 'em in the head and do anything with them."
- Laura McGhee was a small woman but fearless. During a demonstration, a police officer gave the order to disperse. She ignored it, and when the officer came over and shoved her with his nightstick, she knocked the nightstick down, and when the officer drew back to her, she grabbed the officer and his nightstick. Dick Gregory and several others had to pull her off him. Her sons shot back at nightriders. Her house was shot at so many times that the boys built a bridge of timbers in front of her house to make it harder for nightriders to see what they were shooting at. Two of the boys participated in the March on Washington in 1963.
- After Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights bill into law on July 2, 1964, Silas walked into Greenwood, a four or five mile walk, where he planned to integrate a restaurant -- by himself. The restaurant was closed so he went to a movie theater. He did not leave when asked, and he finally went to the lobby to call the police. They took him home and gave a lecture to him about proper behavior. When he got home, his brother Jake was mad at him for leaving him out of the fun. They agreed to go back to the same theater the following Wednesday. They went to the movies -- or tried to go -- a number of times over the next couple of weeks. Each time the reprisals became fiercer. On July 16, Silas was kidnapped and taken to a deserted shack by three white men. They decided to beat him before shooting him. That was their mistake. He escaped and then identified his kidnappers; they became the first arrests under the Civil Rights Act.
- On August 15, Silas pulled off the road to wait out a rainstorm. When he awoke, he saw a man in a nearby car pointing a gun at him. He was hit in the head with a .38 slug, which broke his jaw and went down his neck. Bob Zellner took Silas to the hospital where a crowd of cops were there crowing about how Silas had gotten his. No one brought a stretcher. Zellner took Silas inside where he was ignored. No one made any effort to help him. Finally, a black doctor showed up and began treatment. Silas spent ten days in the hospital in Jackson, but he survived.
- Jake was arrested following Silas' shooting. His mother, accompanied by a lawyer and Zellner, went to the police station.
- Soon after his release from the hospital, Silas and Jake went to the movies again.
- The stepped-up civil rights activism and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created a conservative white backlash. One of the major faces of the newly emergent white conservatism was Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona.
- Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His primary concern was that a public accommodation requirement was a violation of an individual’s private property.
- He also pledged to end crime in the streets, a thinly veiled threat against demonstrations.
- White conservatism continued to gain strength throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, partly in reaction to perceived excesses of the civil rights movement. It culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.
Copyright 2012, by the Contributing Authors. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
Cite/attribute Resource. Pierce, R. (Sep 05, 2006). Civil Rights Act of 1964. Retrieved May 26, 2013, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site: http://nddev.educommons.net/history/african-american-history-ii/lecture-notes/lecture-17-notes.