In the popular, and sometimes scholarly, imagination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brings to mind images associated with the old Southern racial caste system that the act helped undo: the now-familiar black and white images of schoolchildren facing down firehoses and police dogs in Birmingham, the historic signing ceremony in the White House with President Lyndon Johnson surrounded by politicians and civil rights leaders, and the image of thousands of protesters who marched and organized to demand freedom. The Act was signed into law on July 2, 1964, after years of grassroots protest, violence in the South, organizing and boycotts attacking segregation in the North, civic engagement and lobbying by a host of organizations, and the longest debate in Senate history. The result was accomplished only after the breaking of the Southern filibuster that had given segregationists a lock on national politics. Opponents fought hard and long to block passage of the Act because many of its provisions had the potential to change the basic understandings of Americans about inequality (not just limited to race) and about federal power to remedy it.
In truth, that historic enactment was the product of organizing and advocacy that stretched back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Ordinary citizens and civil rights groups had pushed for federal anti-lynching legislation since the 1920s and had advocated for federal legislation creating a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee since the 1940s. Indeed, the Act came on the heels of the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” where the marchers’ official goals included access to employment, housing, public accommodations, education, the voting booth, and desegregated schools-as well as a federal full employment program. Its enactment was followed by continued violence, repression and activism that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A long and contentious process led to these two historic statutes of freedom, but their enactment was not an endpoint of the story. In fact, the Civil Rights Act’s passage was followed by a renewed fight about the nature of inequality that drew in a broad spectrum of actors at all levels of American politics, and the Act continues to transform society to the present day.
Kenneth W. Mack, Foreword: A Short Biography of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 67 SMU L. Rev. 229 (2014)