Civil Rights Act

An Act To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize 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, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes
— Civil Rights Act of 1964, preamble

On the eve of the infamous Wallace in the Schoolhouse Door desegregation incident on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy called on the nation to end racial discrimination in a historic plea for a new civil rights act. Unfortunately, President Kennedy was assassinated on November 26, 1963 before he was able to see his Act pass in Congress. In fact, it was not until after months of political infighting and an 83-day filibuster by powerful segregationist congressmen that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub. L. 88-352) was finally passed.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is most famous for making racial discrimination illegal in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels (read more about the big loophole here). However, it also made it illegal (or at least more difficult) to discriminate in other situations as well.

Arguably, one of the most important things the Act did was make it easier to move civil rights cases out of state courts marred by racism and into the federal court system. It also authorized the Attorney General of the United States to intervene in certain cases to ensure that the accused would get a more fair trial.

Although the Act still explicitly allowed states to use literacy tests as a way to discriminate against racial minorities seeking to vote, it prohibited discriminating against minorities at the polls in all other ways (see Voting Rights Act of 1965 to learn how and why literacy tests were abolished).

The Act also gave the Justice Department the authority to enforce desegregation in certain public places, especially public schools and extended the authority of the Commission on Civil Rights to pursue discrimination claims in federally assisted programs for a few more years.

Title VII of the Act also established a relatively toothless Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) that was meant to help prevent discrimination in the workplace (read more about the EEOC, Title VII, and the small business loophole here).

Appallingly, women’s rights were hardly considered at all in the creation of the Act. In fact, segregationist Virginia Democrat, Howard W. Smith, mockingly introduced the prohibition on sex discrimination as a last-ditch effort to try to destroy support for the Act. Representatives greeted his amendment with laughter and jokes and the two-hour debate that ensued before the amendment was finally passed would later jeeringly become known as the “Ladies Day in the House.” Nonetheless, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 successfully overcame several key legal challenges over the years and paved the way for future laws that would continue to help racial minorities and women access their rights.


EEOC, Title VII, and the Small Business Loophole

The original version of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, and national origin. The Act now prohibits discrimination in recruitment, hiring, wages, assignment, promotions, benefits, discipline, discharge, layoffs and almost every aspect of employment. The EEOC investigates discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, and retaliation for reporting or participating in and/or opposing a discriminatory practice. Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As a result, many states have stepped in to protect sexual orientation at the state level.

Title VII applies to private employers, labor unions and employment agencies, and the federal government. Originally, the federal government was exempt from the Act but now only Native American tribes, private nonprofit organizations, and religious groups are free to discriminate.

Small businesses with fewer than 25 employees were originally allowed to continue discriminating under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972 changed the law to require all businesses with 15 or more employees to adhere to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Private establishment loophole–Title II of the Act makes it illegal to discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations but it exempts private clubs without defining the word “private.” This creates a loophole for organizations that want to continue to discriminate legally.

83-day filibuster–A filibuster is a procedure that allows senators to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a proposed bill by talking about any topic they wish for as long as they want unless three-fifths of the Senate votes to end it.

The 83-day filibuster that precipitated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is still the longest filibuster in Senate history. On the last day of the filibuster, June 10, 1964, Democratic segregationist Senator Robert Byrd spoke for 14 hours straight.

Wallace in the Schoolhouse Door

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. For nearly a decade after the Court’s ruling, hundreds of black applicants applied to study at the University of Alabama only to be consistently denied admission. In fact, with the help of local police all but one applicant, Autherine Lucy, was denied admission for one invented reason or another. Even in her situation, Autherine Lucy was removed on the third day of school after the University claimed that it could not protect her from angry mobs bent on seeing her removed from the school. Shortly after that incident she was expelled for allegedly slandering the school.

During his campaign for governor in 1962, George Wallacepromised that he would personally “stand in the schoolhouse door” to block integration in Alabama public schools. To help solidify his promise, Wallace called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” at his inaugural speech.

Governor Wallace was able to follow up on his promise to stand in a schoolhouse door when two well-qualified black candidates – Vivian Malone and James Hood – decided to try to register for classes on June 11, 1963 after obtaining a federal court order demanding that the university admit black students. Seizing on the opportunity to gain political capital with fellow racist constituents, Governor Wallace arrived at the school with a cadre of state troopers and proceeded to block the doorway into Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama.

When Malone and Hood arrived at the school with federal marshals in tow, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach asked Wallace to step aside. Instead of complying, Wallace began delivering a speech about states’ rights. Katzenbach had to call President John F. Kennedy, who then federalized the Alabama National Guard. A reluctant General Henry Graham of the Alabama National Guard was then required to command Governor Wallace to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States. Wallace continued his speech for some time but then eventually moved and Malone and Hood were able to register as students.