The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Still Works for You

Rights can be precarious things. In the political present, states pass laws that conflict with Supreme Court decisions, and issues of individual rights come into question at traffic stops and borders. Remarkably, rights were even less certain in the 1960s. That’s one reason that we stop to remember that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts into law 55 years ago today. Despite this being a monumental piece of legislation, people are often confused about what it means and what protections it affords. The Act impacts everything from voting to schools to where court cases are heard and beyond. Let’s take a look at some of the most important pieces of the act, as well as the updates made in 1968 and 1991.

President Kennedy’s 1963 Civil Right Address (Uploaded to YouTube by JFK Library)

President John Kennedy had proposed the act in 1963, and Representative Emanuel Celler of New York introduced it, but a filibuster in the Senate ground its passage to a halt. After Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson made it a priority to drive the bill forward, and signed it upon its passage on July 2, 1964. The broad idea of the 1964 Act is fairly simple to grasp: It aims to prohibit discrimination on the basis of color, race, sex, or national origin by state and federal governments, as well as most public places. This larger concept is tackled in 11 titles under the act. In simple terms,

No piece of legislation is perfect, but overlooked or unexpected divergences from earlier laws can be corrected or updated in later bills. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 made efforts to address civil rights for Native Americans, as well as tackling housing discrimination in the Fair Housing Act (which is composed of Titles VIII and IX in the text). Labor was addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, guaranteeing the right to a jury trial in cases of discrimination claims while also strengthening the ability of women to sue for sexual harassment or discrimination at work.

Dr. Martin Luther King speaks with Malcolm X.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met only one time, when both men attended Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Photo from the U.S. News & World Report Archives;

Today, inequalities still exist, but the 1964 Civil Rights Act remains one of the most comprehensive attempts to address them. Its passage made possible subsequent legislation, like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the more recent protections afforded to LGBTQ citizens. Our current cultural moment finds us still dealing with fractured communities and the pains of the past. By recognizing these inequities and attempting in some small way to mitigate them, steps like the Civil Rights Act keep us on the path that Kennedy envisioned when he said, “We cannot say to 10 percent of the population that you can’t have that right; that your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go in the street and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.”

Featured image: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others observe. (Photo by Cecil Stoughton of the White House Press Office; Wikimedia Commons)