Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains the US government's most ambitious attempt to reduce race discrimination. Passed after the longest filibuster in Senate history, the act broke new ground in civil rights legislation by regulating private conduct ( Zietlow 2004 ).

House Resolution 7152, which became the act, was introduced in June 1963 by the Kennedy administration. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson identified passing the act as an appropriate tribute to Kennedy. The bill endured a very difficult legislative process, including being held hostage in the House Rules Committee by the very hostile Rep. Howard Smith and a fifty-four-day filibuster in the Senate. The president kept close track of the bill's progress and prospects through Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Senate Majority Leader Hubert

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil RightsAct into law at the White House, July 2, 1964.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil RightsAct into law at the White House, July 2, 1964.

Humphrey, and gave advice on legislative strategy. Johnson resisted efforts to modify the bill, fearing that strengthening it would undermine its chances of passage and weakening it would alienate liberal legislators whose support he would need to pass his antipoverty agenda, but avoided getting publicly involved in the legislative process because he was uncertain of its passage and did not want the blame if it failed ( Whalen and Whalen 1985 ). The act, only slightly weakened from H.R. 7152 as introduced, was signed into law on July 2, 1964.

Previous national civil rights legislation had relied on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution (Section 1), which outlawed discrimination only if it was caused by “state action” ( Beerman 2002, 981 ). The act also relied upon the commerce clause, which had been interpreted to allow Congress to regulate any activity substantially affecting interstate commerce, such as in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel, 301 U.S. 1 ( 1937 ), and Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 ( 1942 ). This strategy proved successful: the act has been consistently held to apply to a wide variety of legal situations. It, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was the legislative culmination of decades of struggle for civil rights.

The act includes eleven separate titles covering voting rights, public accommodations, desegregation of public schools and other public facilities, the procedures of the Civil Rights Commission, discrimination in private employment and federally funded programs, record-keeping on voting participation, federal jurisdiction in discrimination cases, and the Community Relations Service. Among these, Title II, prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, and Title VII, prohibiting discrimination in private employment, have been the most legally significant and controversial. By authorizing the US Department of Justice to bring lawsuits to force school districts to desegregate, the act removed the necessity of finding local plaintiffs brave enough to challenge segregation in their own communities and brought the legal resources of the national government to bear on segregated schools ( Brown 2004 ). The year after the passage of the act, desegregation in the South began in earnest. During the 1963–1964 school year, nine full years after the Brown decision, only about 1 percent of African American schoolchildren in the South were attending desegregated schools ( Rosenberg 1999 ). By the 1966–1967 school year, this figure had increased to 16.9 percent, and by 1972–1973 it was up to 91.3 percent ( Rosenberg 1991, 50 ).


Three Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s sustained the breadth of Title II of the act, which prohibits race discrimination by hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations involved in interstate commerce ( 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000a[b][1–4] ). The first two cases established congressional authority to regulate private discrimination based on the commerce clause, in Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution. In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 ( 1964 ), the act was challenged on the grounds that prohibiting race discrimination by private businesses exceeded the national government's power to regulate interstate commerce. The Heart of Atlanta Motel was a 216-room facility located near downtown Atlanta and within blocks of several interstate highways. The motel had an explicit policy of refusing to rent rooms to African Americans. Because three-quarters of its guests came from outside of Georgia, the Court had little trouble deciding that the motel operated in interstate commerce. Further, the Court found that racial discrimination in public accommodations substantially affected interstate commerce by making travel more difficult for African Americans.

African American travelers often had to stay with friends or acquaintances on multi-day trips because they could not find hotels that would accept them. The Court found

a qualitative, as well as quantitative, effect on interstate travel by Negroes. The former was the obvious impairment of the Negro traveler's pleasure and convenience that resulted when he continually was uncertain of finding lodging. As for the latter, there was evidence that this uncertainty stemming from racial discrimination had the effect of discouraging travel on the part of a substantial portion of the Negro community (379 U.S. at 253).

The second case, Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 ( 1964 ), concerned a barbecue restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. Ollie's Barbecue differed from Heart of Atlanta Motel in that it served a primarily local clientele and offered take out service for African American customers. The widespread discrimination against African American customers relegated them to eating in “isolated and unkempt restaurants and under most unsatisfactory and often unpleasant conditions” (379 U.S. at 300). A unanimous Court found that Ollie's, which purchased about half of the meat it served from out of state, was sufficiently connected to interstate commerce to justify coverage by the act. The Court concluded that restaurants “sold less interstate goods because of the discrimination, that interstate travel was obstructed directly by it, that business in general suffered and that many new businesses refrained from establishing there as a result of it” (379 U.S. at 300). The Court's reasoning in Katzenbach suggested that even relatively small economic enterprises would be covered by the act.

A few years later, in Daniel v. Paul, 395 U.S. 298 ( 1969 ), the Court considered a challenge to the racial discrimination practiced by the Lake Nixon Club, a recreational facility near Little Rock, Arkansas. The Lake Nixon Club maintained that it was a private club, and thus not covered by the act, because it limited admission to patrons who had paid the 25-cent fee for membership. However, only whites could become members. Additionally, the club argued that it was a local establishment unconnected to interstate commerce. The Court found neither argument persuasive. The nominal membership fee was the only characteristic Lake Nixon Club shared with true “private clubs.” Lake Nixon routinely admitted all whites to membership and the members had no ownership or governing power within the club. Because the owners advertised in publications that served a multistate market and because many of the ingredients in the food served in the snack bar had come from out of state, the club was found to be involved in interstate commerce. These three rulings established that public accommodations with very slight connections to interstate commerce would be covered by the act and that any business that sought customers among the general public would be considered a “public accommodation.”


A second controversial element of the act is Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin by businesses with more than twenty-five employees ( 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e-2 ). One question involves what practices count as discriminatory. Before the act, many employers explicitly limited the jobs that were available to women or nonwhite employees. Such rules were clearly inconsistent with the provisions of the act. In Griggs v. Duke Power, 401 U.S. 424 ( 1971 ), the Court ruled that job qualifications not explicitly involving race could violate Title VII if they were not related to job performance and if they operated in a way that disadvantaged black employees.

The Griggs decision stands for the proposition that employment practices with a discriminatory racial impact are prohibited if they are unrelated to actual ability to adequately perform job duties. In Wards Cove Packing Company v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 ( 1989 ), the Court made it more difficult for plaintiffs to prove that hiring or promotion rules had a discriminatory effect by requiring more than mere evidence of various racial makeups at different job levels. This was a short-lived setback because Congress reinstated the Griggs rule in the 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act. The Court's decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557 ( 2009 ), signaled another move away from scrutiny of the disparate impact of hiring and promotion practices. In Ricci, the Court required New Haven, Connecticut, to implement the results of a testing program for promotions within the fire department despite the fact that no black firefighters had done well enough on the test to be promoted.

United Steelworkers of America v. Weber, 443 U.S. 193 ( 1979 ), endorsed affirmative action in promotion plans by private employers. An agreement between the United Steelworkers union and Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation reserved half of the slots in a training program for black workers. Bryan Weber, a white employee who was denied access to the training program, challenged this agreement on the grounds that it violated Title VII's prohibition on racial discrimination in employment. By a 5–2 vote, the Court found that the affirmative action program was consistent with the goals of Title VII, to open employment opportunities for black workers. Justice William J. Brennan Jr.'s majority opinion notes that the challenged plan is a temporary measure to remedy the effects of race discrimination and was voluntarily adopted by the union and the company. The Court later reaffirmed the legality of race-conscious hiring and promotion plans in Firefighters v. Cleveland, 478 U.S. 501 ( 1986 ). The Court's interpretation of Title VII of the act allows more room for affirmative action plans by private parties than its interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment allows to government bodies ( e.g., Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 [1978]; Richmond v. J.A. Croson Company, 488 U.S. 469 [1989]; and Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pe˜a, 515 U.S. 200 [1995] ).


The most significant lasting social impact of the act is the desegregation of private businesses in the South. Prior to 1964, black customers were routinely excluded or treated differently at restaurants, hotels, theaters, and other businesses. Breaking down this wall meant that the races were much more likely to interact informally. More broadly, the act contributed to an enlarged view of Congress's authority under the commerce clause. The Supreme Court's Heart of Atlanta v. U.S., Katzenbach v. McClung, and Daniel v. Paul decisions viewed race discrimination as an economic issue and applied the law even to businesses with relatively weak connections to interstate commerce. In terms of employment discrimination and economic progress for African Americans, the results are less impressive. The earnings gap between black and white workers has not shrunk over time. Nationally, median income for blacks was approximately 60 percent of median income for whites in 1967 and remained about the same in 2011 ( DeNavas-Walt et al. 2011, 5, fig.1 ). However, regional variation in this earnings gap has largely vanished. In the 1960s the gap was much greater in the South. By 2000, the earnings gap was about the same throughout the nation ( Vigdor 2006 ).

SEE ALSO American Constitutional Development from 1937 to 1980 ; Civil Rights Movement ; Commerce Clause ; Fourteenth Amendment ; Fourteenth Amendment: Enforcement Clause ; Race Discrimination .


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Joseph L. Smith
University of Alabama