United States Civil Rights Act of 1964

September 29, 2011

Congress passed the most significant legislation affecting equal rights in 1964. The Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate against a person because of his or her race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. This law essentially gave minorities equal access to education, employment, and other opportunities. In addition, the Civil Rights Act made discrimination and segregation illegal in public places, state programs, and community programs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was created by the Civil Rights Act, was formed to monitor and enforce the mandate of this law.

Support for the Civil Rights Act began with marches and demonstrations by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The brutality unleashed on these peaceful protesters led to President Kennedy’s support to pass a federal civil rights law in 1963. In support of the law, Dr. Martin Luther King held a public demonstration called “Jobs and Freedom” in Washington, DC. Over 250,000 people attended and heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Although the viability of the civil rights legislation was threatened by the assassination of President Kennedy, the push for civil rights law continued when Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became President. However, several strong Southern senators led a campaign against the civil rights legislation by initiating and sustaining the longest filibuster in history, which lasted for a total of 8 weeks. Despite the Southern senators’ strong opposition, they were unsuccessful in preventing the legislation from becoming law. The filibuster was finally defeated by cloture, which allowed 60 senators to vote and end the filibuster. As a result, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination against women illegal, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did not enforce the ban on gender discrimination. More work was needed to ensure equality for women. The momentum of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encouraged women’s rights organizations such as the National Organization for Women to continue their campaign for equality. These organizations pushed for either a constitutional amendment or a Supreme Court ruling that would further the prohibition of gender discrimination. Although the constitutional amendment known as the Equal Rights Amendment failed, the Supreme Court ruled that gender discrimination violated the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Other enacted laws that prohibited gender discrimination such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, were passed due to the groundwork established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The abolition of gender discrimination in the workplace was a major goal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Act continues to make it illegal for an employer to treat an employee differently because of his or her sex. Company policies that discriminate against women and job advertisements that discourage women from applying are violations of the Civil Rights Act. The provisions apply regardless of the physically demanding nature of the job or high turnover rates. The Civil Rights Act prohibits virtually all unilateral discrimination against women.

Over time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been amended to expand the law against discrimination. In 1972, the Civil Rights Act was amended to prohibit discrimination by private employers. In addition, the Act was amended in 1980 to prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities, which includes those with physical, mental, and health disabilities such as AIDS. The 1991 amendment expanded employment discrimination protection for women and minorities.

Today, the effect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is visible in the workplace and educational systems. The number of women employed since 1950 has risen over 70%. In education, the number of female students becoming doctors and lawyers has risen dramatically in the last 40 years. Equal access to education has enabled women to study engineering and become astronauts for NASA. Business ownership among women has skyrocketed because of the equal opportunity provided by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a landmark legislation that furthered and expanded civil rights and equality under the law. It was the first step toward giving every man or woman, regardless of race, an opportunity to pursue any educational career he or she wishes, to own businesses, and to receive equal treatment in the workplace. It allowed U.S. citizens to fully exercise their rights, regardless of sex, color, national origin, or religion.

See Also: Affirmative action, Discrimination, Sexual harassment

Suggested Reading

  • O’Connor, K., & Sabato, L. J. (2000). The essentials of American government, continuity and change. Boston: Addison Wesley Longman.
  • Patterson, T. E. (1994). The American democracy (2nd ed., pp. 176, 188, 193, 197, 255). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Sack, S. M. (1998). The working woman’s legal survival guide. Paramus, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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