The Civil Rights Act 1964
he Civil Rights Act of 1964 took place during the presidency of John F Kennedy who was elected president in 1960. Kennedy’s support for Black civil rights in previous years had been patchy, for example, he had opposed Eisenhower’s 1957 Act. However, when in Office he did support the Civil Rights Bill.
The new president was faced with some very disturbing facts: 57% of African American housing was judged to be unacceptable; African American life expectancy was 7 years less than whites; African American infant mortality was twice as great as whites; African Americans found it all but impossible to get mortgages from mortgage lenders (this was because property values would drop if an African American family moved into a neighbourhood that was not a ghetto).
Kennedy made the American public aware of these facts in a passionate public speech. Some people felt America was being hypocritical because they condemned the Soviet Union for their poor treatment of people in Eastern Europe, while they turned a blind eye to the injustices going on at home in America: “the land of the free”.
Kennedy had a number of obstacles he needed to get over. Firstly, a great deal of his short time in power was taken up with the Cuban Missile Crisis rather than the Civil Rights Bill. The Vietnam War also took up a great deal of his time and attention. It was also a problem that few whites considered the Civil Rights issue to be very important; one poll put civil rights at the bottom of a list of things which should be done for America. Kennedy had only won the Presidential election by a small margin, so he did not have the popular support needed to make drastic changes such as the Civil Rights Bill.
Kennedy’s assassination shocked the world. His vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, suddenly found himself sworn in as President on Air Force One. Johnson had done what he needed to do to stop the 1957 Civil Rights Act, but despite the fact he was a Texan, he realised that a major civil rights act was needed to advance African Americans within USA society. He used the shock of Kennedy’s murder to push forward the 1964 Civil Rights Act, part of what he was to term his vision for America: the "Great Society".
The seeds of the 1964 Act were sown in Kennedy’s presidency. Johnson believed that he owed it to Kennedy’s life to push through the act, especially since he was not an elected President and only had the job as a result of Kennedy’s death.
Times had changed in America since the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Martin Luther King was now an international figure and Malcolm X was proclaiming that a more militant approach could be used to gain civil rights. The non-violent approach of the 1950’s was on its way out. The northern city ghettos were moving more and more towards militancy. Society had changed and Johnson realised this and wanted to stop civil unrest by forcing the Act through Congress.
The Civil Rights Bill’s success in passing Congress owed much to the murder of Kennedy. The mood of the public would not have allowed any attempts to damage "Kennedy’s Bill". Even so, the bill had to survive attempts in Congress to seriously weaken it. Johnson played the obvious card: how could anybody vote against an issue which had been so dear to the late president’s heart? How could anybody be so unpatriotic? Johnson simply appealed to a nation which was still traumatised by Kennedy’s murder. To win over the Southern hard-liners, Johnson told them he would not allow the Bill to tolerate anybody using it as a lever to have an easy life regardless of their colour. By January 1964, public opinion had started to change: 68% now supported a meaningful civil rights act. President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act in July of that year.
The Civil Rights Act gave Federal Government the right to end segregation in the South. It stopped lawyers from trying to wriggle out of desegregation by defining areas as privately owned. Indeed, the Act tried to cover every aspect that some lawyer might use to avoid implementing desegregation. An Equal Employment Commission was created. Federal funding was not to be given to segregated schools (note that these had been banned in 1954, ten years previous!). Any company that wanted federal business (the biggest spender of money in American business) had to have a pro-civil rights charter. Any segregationist company that applied for a federal contact would not get it.
Many Southerners were horrified by the extent of the Act. Johnson probably only got away with it because he was from Texas. Ironically, the African American community were most vocal in criticising the Act. There were riots by African Americans in north-eastern cities because from their point of view, the Act did not go far enough. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (a predominantly Black political party) demanded seats at the Democratic Party Convention as they believed that they were more representative of the people who lived in Mississippi than the politicians who would usually have attended such conventions. Johnson was dismayed at this lack of public support among the African American community.
Regardless of these protests from both sides of society, many historians now believe that the 1964 Act was of major importance to America’s political and social development. The act has been called Johnson’s greatest achievement. He constantly referred to the morality of what he was doing and made constant reference to the immorality of a social structure which tolerated any form of discrimination. Johnson’s desire, regardless of his background, was to advance America’s society and he saw the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the way forward.