Chapter 26: The Civil Rights Act, 1964

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World War II brought African Americans closer to the mainstream of American life than ever before. Many moved out of the South to take jobs in defense industries. Others served in the still segregated military (see photo on page 141). (President Truman integrated the military in 1948.) Still, they were not fully part of American life (Document B). In the 1950s, African Americans and their allies organized a movement to gain full civil rights, to realize a dream too long deferred, as Langston Hughes put it (Document A). Boycotts of white businesses, public transportation, and marches gave impetus to the movement. Reputedly one of the most segregated cities in the United States, Birmingham, Alabama became, in 1963,  a center of protest and action against discrimination and the denial of civil rights (Document B). Faced with continuing discrimination and rising protests, President John F. Kennedy decided to support a new civil rights law (Document C). (Congress had passed a series of such laws during the decade following the Civil War.) On June 11, 1963, after consulting with Congressional leaders, Kennedy addressed the American people to explain why the new law was necessary. Eight days later he sent the bill to Congress.

Opponents objected to various provisions, including equal access to public accommodations, but also to what they felt was its unconstitutional extension of federal power (Document D). Supporters organized a March on Washington in August 1963, at which Martin Luther King gave his now famous “I Have a Dream Speech” (see the online collection of King’s papers, Stressing non-violent civil disobedience, King had become the leader of the Civil Rights movement. Opposition in Congress was sufficient, however, to prevent passage of the law. When Lyndon Johnson became president following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, he pushed for the new law, in part as a memorial to Kennedy. The law was passed July 2, 1964.

A motel in Atlanta, Georgia challenged the constitutionality of the public accommodation portion of the bill. The case reached the Supreme Court, which decided in December 1964 that the provision was a constitutional exercise of the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce (Document D). Attorneys General from Florida and Virginia had filed briefs urging that the lower court decision affirming the law be reversed, while attorneys general from California, Massachusetts and New York had filed briefs urging that it be upheld.

Documents in this chapter are available separately by following the hyperlinks below:

A. Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” 1951

B. F. L. Shuttlesworth, N. H. Smith, Birmingham Manifesto, April 3, 1963

C. President John F. Kennedy, Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, June 11, 1963

D. Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC), Debate on the Civil Rights Act, March 18, 1964

E. Associate Justice Tom C. Clark, Atlanta Motel v. United States, December 14, 1964

Discussion Questions

A. What are the arguments of Senators Hubert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond for and against the Civil Rights Act? Are they making the same kinds of arguments? Proponents of civil rights like Martin Luther King and Fred L. Shuttlesworth appealed to the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution; Thurmond appealed soley to the Constitution and the rights it protects. Is there a conflict between the Declaration and the Constitution? How d