President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, first proposed by John F. Kennedy, into law on July 2, 1964. The Act was the most important piece of legislation in the fight for the progression of civil rights. Citing the Commerce Clause, The Act contained eleven “titles” that made illegal the discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in education, public facilities, jobs, and housing (Civil). The act also “authorized the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, and to establish a Commission on Equal Employment” (Burrell).
By outlawing all discrimination and giving more power to the government to prosecute those who perpetuated racism, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 laid the foundation for desegregation and an end to civil rights violations.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a complete overhaul of the social injustice that minorities had dealt with everyday since reconstruction, and because of this, reception of the legislation was turbulent.
Southern Democrats portrayed the Act as an attack on the “southern way of life” (Burrell). Election officials found ways to continue denying southern African American votes by forcing them to recite the entire constitution or explain complex provisions of state laws. Business owners continued their refusal of integration by deeming their operations as private. The Heart of Atlanta Motel refused to rent rooms to African Americans, arguing that congress overstepped its Commerce Clause powers by forcing them to rent to everyone.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the provision of the Act preventing the discrimination was constitutional, but the case highlighted the need for more legislation to ensure enforcement and equal rights for all.
Unrest spread throughout the country, but the South’s history of oppression towards African American’s intensified their reaction. On February 18th 1965, in Marion, Alabama, a peaceful protest was interrupted when white supremacists attacked a group of African Americans. Alabama State Troopers used the melee as an opportunity to engage the group, and Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young African American protestor, was ultimately shot and killed by a trooper (Nagan). The “accidental” killings of protestors and allowance of the disruption of demonstrations by local law enforcement seemed to be a trend in southern states. In response to the killing and continued voter suppression, Martin Luther King Jr. led a march of 25,000 people from Selma to Montgomery. George C. Wallace, Alabama’s governor, told state troopers to “take whatever means necessary” to prevent the march (Nagan). When demonstrators took to the streets on March 7th, they were met with tear-gas, billy clubs, and whips. Fortunately, some good came from what was deemed “Bloody Sunday” when reporters broadcasted the brutal assaults on national television. The televising of the attack opened the eyes of millions of Americans who otherwise ignored or were unaware of the atrocities being committed in the South. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was President Johnson’s strong response to the attack in Selma and the continued violation of African Americans’ constitutional civil rights.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 strengthened the intention of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by implementing further protection for African Americans. It was clear that elected officials who opposed the Civil Rights Act could not be trusted in ending voter suppression and intimidation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests, provided for the appointment of Federal examiners, required federal approval for any changes in local voting practices, and applied a nationwide ban on discrimination of color when determining voting rights (Augustine). The impact of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was almost immediate. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote (Loc).
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the government’s response to the obvious need for serious legislation to curb racism and end segregation, but the regional disconnect between the south and the north led to a lack of enforcement. It was a step in the right direction, but some parts of the country were steadfast in refusing to adapt. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to further protect the minority vote, and provided the means for federal intervention when and where it was needed. Without these two pieces of federal legislation, the social and political landscape in the United States would be completely different. Beyond the obvious impact of giving African Americans a voice through political participation, there are several other positives that can be traced to these progressive reforms. For one, politicians can no longer ignore their minority electorate. People vote for candidates that represent their best interests, and because of this, minorities can reap the benefits of deciding who they want to vote for. The pros of voting for a candidate who is a reflection of your socioeconomic status are endless. Secondly, by giving a voice to minorities in a society that governs its life with laws dependent on votes, society was forced to recognize minorities as human, whether they liked it or not. Lastly, these two pieces of legislation, which provided for and enforced basic civil rights, allow for interpretation in determining the legality of polarizing issues in society today like rights of immigrants. In terms of ensuring and promoting civil rights for all, the United States has made tremendous progress since these pieces of legislation were introduced. There are modern laws, like those regarding gun control, that seem to have a proper foundation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but need a strengthening, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Voters today should keep the struggles of the civil rights era in mind when deciding which modern laws need strengthening.