50th Anniversary: The Civil Rights Act & the Movement Behind It

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. In this lesson, students explore the interplay of this legislation with the Civil Rights Movement, and consider what role everyday people play in making change.

To the Teacher:

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. On July 2, 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law landmark legislation outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in public accommodations, it was widely regarded as a culmination of many years of organizing, campaigning, and protest by civil rights activists.
This lesson is divided into two readings aimed at having students think critically about the Civil Rights Act, the historical forces that resulted in its passage, and how we interpret this history today.
The first reading gives a general overview of the Civil Rights Act: What was it and why was it so difficult to get passed? The second reading looks at the role different forces played in pushing the Civil Rights Act forward: Was the legislation the work of idealistic politicians, or was it "written in the streets" through the tireless work and sacrifices of everyday citizens?
Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Student Reading 1:
What Was the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. On July 2, 1964, after years of organizing, campaigning, and protests by civil rights activists, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law this landmark legislation, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in public accommodations.
The need for federal civil rights legislation to combat discrimination against African-Americans had been apparent for many decades, reaching back to the first years after the Civil War. While Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves and Congress subsequently passed amendments to the Constitution mandating equal protection under the law and full voting rights for African Americans, in practice racial divisions and discrimination remained the order of the day, particularly in the South.
In the decades following Civil War, "Jim Crow" segregation took hold in the South. Jim Crow was a system of legalized discrimination: African American voters were  disenfranchised  and denied the use of public accommodations, facilities were kept separate and unequal. For African Americans, it was a reign of terror that included violence and lynchings to punish those who defied racial codes.
African Americans and others spoke out against Jim Crow and other aspects of racism, and in the 1950s, a Civil Rights Movement began to grow. In 1955, activists organized a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregation.
That movement helped fuel legislative action. Despite repeated attempts by Northern and anti-segregation legislators to pass Civil Rights legislation through Congress in the early part of the 20th century, Southern legislators used their influence to block civil rights bills.
The first successful effort to pass any legislation against segregation through Congress in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era came with the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Though the bill that was originally proposed by President Eisenhower had some strength, the version that ultimately passed was weak and did little to end the Jim Crow order.
The 1957 bill met with opposition from conservative Southern Democrats such as Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, an avowed segregationist. Thurmond famously mounted a record-setting 24-hour filibuster against the bill. More moderate Senators, including future president Lyndon B. Johnson, supported a weakened version of the bill, which they believed would have a better chance of passing through the Congress. In a September 12, 2007 op-ed for the New York Times, historian David A. Nichols, author of a book on President Eisenhower, describes the result of these debates: 

Eisenhower and his attorney general, Herbert Brownell Jr., first proposed strong legislation, and it was Johnson and his Southern cronies who weakened it beyond recognition.
Johnson wanted a cosmetic bill that would enhance his presidential ambitions without alienating his white Southern base. It was a balancing act, as even a weak bill depended on Eisenhower's new legislative coalition, which formed after he persuaded the Republicans to abandon their longtime opposition to civil rights legislation. (Republicans provided 37 of the 60 yes votes when the final bill passed the Senate.)
The Eisenhower proposal had four main parts. The first two — the creation of a civil rights commission to investigate voting irregularities and a civil rights division in the Justice Department — survive to this day. The other two pillars, unfortunately, became victims of politics. Part 3 proposed to grant the attorney general unprecedented authority to file suits to protect broad constitutional rights, including school desegregation. Part 4 provided for federal civil suits to prosecute voting rights violations.
Senator Richard Russell of Georgia led the attack on Part 3, accusing the attorney general of conspiring "to destroy the system of separation of the races in the Southern states at the point of a bayonet." Johnson eventually told Eisenhower he had the votes to kill the entire bill unless the president dropped Part 3. Eisenhower reluctantly capitulated.

The 1957 Act did nothing to address the issue of segregation of public accommodations and, in practice, did very little to protect African-Americans' right to vote. However, it was important symbolically in opening the door for further reform.
After passage of the 1957 bill, the Civil Rights Movement continued to grow, focusing public attention on the persistence of racial injustices, particularly in the Deep South. The movement staged major protests, including a 1963 mass mobilization in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Southern law officers attacked the nonviolent demonstrators with police dogs and fire hoses. In the wake of this protest, the Kennedy administration was moved to put forth more comprehensive civil rights legislation. But this bill, too, was met with resistance in Congress, and President Kennedy was assassinated before it was passed.

In a 2008 article for Dissent, historian Nicolaus Mills describes the difficult process through which the Civil Rights Act finally became law in 1964:

The act had its legislative origins in a June 11, 1963, speech that President John Kennedy delivered on national television after Justice Department officials, aided by federal marshals, forced Alabama Governor George Wallace to stand aside while two black students were admitted to the previously segregated University of Alabama. "If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?" Kennedy asked the country.



But Kennedy's speech, which was followed hours later by the murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, did not guarantee a speedy passage of civil rights legislation. A coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans stood in the way and the best that Kennedy could do before his November 22 assassination was to get his civil rights bill voted out of committee.




It fell to President Lyndon Johnson to get Kennedy's civil rights legislation enacted. Soon after taking office, Johnson made his intentions clear. "We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights," he told a joint session of Congress on November 27. "It is time now to write the next chapter and to write it in books of law." At this same time, Martin Luther King was playing a crucial role in shaping public opinion. His April 16 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and his August 28 speech "I Have a Dream" galvanized millions of Americans who in the past had remained passive when support for civil rights was needed.

Still, it was not until 1964 that Kennedy's civil rights bill got through Congress. On February 10, the House passed the bill by a vote of 290 to 130 and on June 19, in the wake of a record-breaking 75-day filibuster, which took up 534 hours, the Senate passed its version of the civil rights bill by a 73 to 27 margin. Now Lyndon Johnson began pressuring Congress to reach agreement on a bill that he could sign by July 4.

Passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took a combination of popular pressure and legislative action. In the next reading we will consider how these two forces interacted.

For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. What was "Jim Crow"? What forms of discrimination were faced by African-Americans in the first half of the 20th century?
  3. According to the reading, how did Southern politicians weaken the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1957?
  4. Today the Civil Rights Act is seen as a landmark piece of legislation, but at the time it was very controversial. Can you think of issues that are currently controversial today but that might be remembered by history in a different way? Explain your examples and defend the reasoning behind your position.



Student Reading 2:
"Written in the Streets": How Social Movement Pressure Moved Politicians to Act on Civil Rights

On April 10, 2014, President Obama and three of his predecessors, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, appeared at a Texas summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act through Congress. The leaders highlighted President Lyndon B. Johnson's important role in seeing the act become law. In his speech, President Obama underscored Johnson's reputation as a legislative mastermind and a hard-nosed negotiator.
In recent years, there has been considerable debate among historians about how much credit President Johnson deserves for passing the Civil Rights Act, and how much credit should be given to civil rights activists who risked their lives to protest in the streets. This debate played out on the 2008 presidential primary campaign trail when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama disagreed about the history. In an April 8, 2014 article for the Washington Post, reporter Karen Tumulty described how Clinton had credited Johnson for bringing the Civil Rights Movement's ambitions to fruition: 

Comparing Johnson's role in the civil rights struggle to that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton said: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done."
At the time, her rival Barack Obama characterized her comment as "an ill-advised remark," saying, "She, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King's role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act." 

Clay Risen, author of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act argued in an April 6, 2014 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that it is inaccurate to think of the passage of the Civil Rights Act merely as a result of actions in Washington, DC: 

When we think about the Civil Rights Act, our minds are drawn to scenes of obstructionist Southern politicians and presidential arm-twisting. But we often forget the broader context of activism and protest in which the bill's long journey across Capitol Hill took place.
These two stories - the political theater inside the Capitol, and the violent tumult of civil-rights protests outside it - did not happen independently. Each drove the other. Few pieces of legislation in American history have been as intimately connected to its social context as the Civil Rights Act.
This relationship went back to the very birth of the bill. One of the goals of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with his protest campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, was to spur federal action to take on the Jim Crow South.
As King said in a sermon on May 7, "The hour has come for the federal government to take a forthright stand on segregation in the United States... I am not criticizing the president, but we are going to have to help him." 

Before mass protest demonstrations in places like Birmingham, the Kennedy Administration had been reluctant to take on the civil rights issue, considering it too politically controversial to touch. Instead of pursuing ambitious legislation, the administration tried to deal with civil rights incidents on a case-by-case basis, attempting to keep the issue out of the headlines. Historian Adam Fairclough, who has examined the effect of Civil Rights protests on the Kennedy White House, writes in his 1987 book, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr.:

For two years, Robert Kennedy had attempted to deal with each racial crisis on an ad hoc basis. Birmingham finally convinced him that the crises would recur with such frequency and magnitude that the federal government, unless it adopted a more radical policy, would be overwhelmed.
Not long after the end of the Birmingham campaign, President John F. Kennedy, announced that he would put forward major civil rights legislation. In a major televised address he explained, "the events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them." 

Clay Risen further describes on to describe how outside pressure was essential in giving the civil rights issue a sense of constant urgency: 

King and other civil-rights leaders gave the bill another boost in August with the March on Washington, which brought 250,000 people to the capital. Though it had little immediate impact on congressional vote counts, the march, which was televised into millions of homes, rammed home for ordinary white Americans the peaceful, righteous nature of the movement's demands - creating a wave of public support for the bill as it trundled through the House and Senate over the next 10 months.
Almost three weeks later, tragedy struck, when four young girls were killed by a bomb planted inside Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. As awful as it was, their murder, and the national indignation it unleashed, opened the door for the bill's supporters to strengthen it significantly, adding what became a landmark ban on employment discrimination.
Throughout the fall of 1963 and the following winter, the spear point for strengthening the bill was not liberal congressmen, but the lobbyists from the NAACP, United Auto Workers, and National Council of Churches, who brought thousands of civil-rights workers, preachers, rabbis, and union members to Washington.
These activists not only won a stronger bill, but also convinced conservative Republican House members to join their liberal colleagues in voting for the legislation. It passed the House by an overwhelming 290 to 130 votes on Feb. 10. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. contended that the Civil Rights Act was "written in the streets." In a March 15, 1965 article in The Nation, King argued that it was the overwhelming demand for civil rights legislation not only led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but also made sure it was respected in practice: 

The Civil Rights Act was expected by many to suffer the fate of the Supreme Court decisions on school desegregation. In particular, it was thought that the issue of public accommodations would encounter massive defiance. But this pessimism overlooked a factor of supreme importance. The legislation was not a product of charity of white America for a supine black America, nor was it the result of enlightened leadership by the judiciary. This legislation was first written in the streets. The epic thrust of the millions of Negroes who demonstrated in 1963 in hundreds of cities won strong white allies to the cause. Together, they created a "coalition of conscience" which awoke a hitherto somnolent Congress. The legislation was polished and refined in the marble halls of Congress, but the vivid marks of its origins in the turmoil of mass meetings and marches were on it, and the vigor and momentum of its turbulent birth carried past the voting and insured substantial compliance. 

Understanding that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came about because of the demands of ordinary people taking action collectively—and not merely the decisions of presidents and other elected officials—is important in shaping our view of how change happens throughout American history.

For Discussion:

  1.  Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2.  What did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. mean when he said that legislation supporting major social change is "written in the streets?" What were some of the efforts by the Civil Rights movement that helped push the Civil Rights Act forward?
  3.  What do you think? Are politicians responsible for creating social change through legislation, or should the activists who create pressure through social movements get more of the credit? Explain your position.
  4.  Are there issues today on which you see ordinary people achieving meaningful change? Are there issues today where citizens' actions have been ahead of politicians?
  5. Is there a critical issue we face today that you think calls for the building of a mass movement?  What is it?  What would it take to create the kind of change you would like to see?