What Was the Significance of the 1964 US Civil Rights Act?

History Hit

4 mins

19 Jun 2018

On 19 June 1964, the landmark Civil Rights Act was finally passed in the United States Senate following an 83-day filibuster. An iconic moment of 20th century social history – not just in the US but worldwide – the legislation banned all discrimination based on race, sex or national origin, as well as any form of racial segregation.

Although the act was the culmination of the American civil rights movement as a whole, historians agree that it was ultimately sparked by the so-called “Birmingham campaign” which had taken place the year before.

The Birmingham campaign

Birmingham, in the state of Alabama, was a flagship city of the policy of racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodation. It lay in the American south, where in centuries gone by most of the country’s black population had worked as slaves and where their white compatriots had gone to war over the issue of slavery in 1861.

Although black people were theoretically emancipated after the north’s victory in the Civil War, their lot did not improve much in the century that followed. By the early 1960s, riots, discontent and violent police reprisals had given rise to a relatively minor movement asking for equal rights in Birmingham, which had been founded by local black reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

Fred Shuttlesworth invited Martin Luther King Jr. and his civil rights organisation to Birmingham.

In early 1963, Shuttlesworth invited the star of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., to bring his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the city, saying “if you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation”.

Once the SCLC’s members were in town, Shuttleworth launched the Birmingham campaign in April, beginning with a boycott of industries that refused to employ black workers.

Non-violent protests

When local leaders resisted and condemned the boycott, King and Shuttlesworth changed their tactics and organised peaceful marches and sit-ins, knowing that the inevitable mass arrests of non-violent protesters would gain international recognition for their cause.

It was slow going at first. But a turning point came when the campaign decided to seek support from Birmingham’s large student population, who suffered from segregation in the city more than most.

This policy was a huge success, and images of teenagers being brutally hosed by police or having attack dogs set on them brought widespread international condemnation. With recognition came support, and peaceful demonstrations soon broke out across the south as Birmingham’s segregation laws began to weaken under the pressure.

Kennedy’s assassination

President Kennedy meets with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., in the Oval Office on 28 August 1963.

President John F. Kennedy was in the midst of trying to get the civil rights bill through Congress when he was sensationally assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22 1963.

Kennedy was replaced by his deputy, Lyndon Johnson, who told members of Congress in his first speech to them as president that “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long”.

Despite the efforts of numerous dissenters, the bill was passed by the House of Representatives in February 1964 and moved on to the Senate shortly after. There it ran out of momentum, however; a group of 18 mostly southern Democratic senators obstructed a vote by extending the debating time in a move known as “filibustering” or “talking a bill to death”.

Watching this debate on 26 March were Luther King and Malcolm X – the only time the two titans of the civil rights movement ever met.

The waiting is over

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X meet on Capitol Hill.

After months of talking and waiting under the watchful eye of the rest of the world (including the Soviet Union which had been greatly enjoying the easy propaganda victories provided it by America’s racial problems), a new, slightly weaker version of the bill was proposed. And this bill gained enough Republican votes to end the filibuster.

The Civil Rights Act was eventually passed by a crushing 73 votes to 27. Martin Luther King Jr. and Johnson had won, and now racial integration would be enforced by the law.

Aside from the obvious social changes that the bill brought about, which continue to be felt to this day, it also had profound political effect. The south became a stronghold of the Republican party for the first time in history and has remained so ever since, while Johnson won that year’s presidential election by a landslide – despite being warned that support for the Civil Rights Act might cost him the vote.

The act failed to bring about equality for minorities in America overnight, however, and it remains a contentious topic in contemporary politics.

Despite this, the act’s passage was still a watershed moment for not only the US but also the world.