Civil Rights Act (1964): The “second emancipation”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended racial segregation in public places and forbade employment discrimination on the basis of race, religious affiliation or sex.
It was first slated by President John F Kennedy, and was signed into law by his successor, Lyndon Johnson, but the Civil Rights Act belonged to the grass-roots civil rights movement that had lobbied the federal government to take firm legislative action against a pernicious, pervasive societal affliction.
The act itself banned segregation in all public accommodation, including courthouses, parks, restaurants, sports stadiums, hotels and theatres. Service could no longer be withheld on the basis of race, religion or gender.
It also banned discrimination in racial, religious or gender terms by employers or labour unions. This would be supervised and enforced by the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The Act also placed restrictions on federal funds, addressing the long-standing issue of federal sponsorship, inadvertent or otherwise, of programs or organisations that discriminated in terms of race.
It also empowered the Department of Education to pursue school desegregation. This had been a cornerstone issue when it came to federal intervention in civil rights matters, highlighted when President Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce the enrollment of black students at Little Rock High School, Arkansas, in 1954.
Finally, it underlined the notion that all Americans should have equal ability to vote. In theoretical terms, the Fourteenth Amendment had secured equal voting rights for all Americans. Racial conservatives had therefore argued that any groundswell civil rights movement would express itself and enact change through the democratic process.
This ignored the reality – that southern blacks in particular were barred through intimidation or obfuscating procedures from voting for change.
However, in this particular field, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 alone was not sufficient.
Voting Rights Act (1965)
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed naturally in the footsteps of the broader Civil Rights Act. The backlash to that Act had involved an outbreak of violence in the South, with racists seeking to prevent blacks, emboldened by the federal government’s stance, from attempting to register to vote.
The violence was a timely reminder that more action was required, and so Lyndon Johnson gave a speech to Congress that contained the following refrain:
Rarely are we met with a challenge…..to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such as an issue…..the command of the Constitution is plain. It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.
The Act that Congress soon passed outlawed poll taxes or literacy tests as methods of assessing whether someone could register to vote. It essentially stated that all one required was American citizenship.
The Act had a startling impact. Within 3 years 9 out of 13 Southern states had over 50% black voter registration. With this elimination of de facto restrictions, numbers of African Americans in public office increased swiftly.
Johnson instigated a legislative revolution, finally enabling black voters to promote change through the democratic process.