The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born in the presidency of John F Kennedy who was elected president in 1960. His support of civil rights issue in previous years had been patchy – he had opposed Eisenhower’s 1957 Act to keep in with the Democrats hierarchy as he had plans to run for president as well as Johnson. 

The new president was faced with facts that were indisputable and came from the organisation created in the 1960 Civil Rights Act  to analyse civil rights issue in America – the Civil Rights Commission. They found that:

57% of African American housing judged to be unacceptable African American life expectancy was 7 years less than whites African American infant mortality was twice as great as whites African Americans found it all but impossible to get mortgages from mortgage lenders Property values would dropped a great deal if an African American family moved into a neighbourhood that was not a ghetto.

Kennedy himself in a passionate public speech made these facts available to the American public. Constantly in the background was the poor treatment of people in Eastern Europe during the Soviet occupation of this area. How could America condemn the Russians and turn a blind eye to the inequalities of what was clearly going on in America itself – the “land of the free”?

How should Kennedy proceed? The Cuban Missile Crisis took up a great deal of his short time in power. But aligned to this was the fact that few whites considered civil rights a particularly important issue – one poll put civil rights at the bottom of a list of “what should be done for America ?” Kennedy also only won the1960 election by a very small  majority (500,000 votes) so he did not have a popular mandate for doing anything too drastic. Also the Vietnam War (though not officially declared) was absorbing more time with what was American covert action in the region at this time.

Kennedy’s assassination shocked the world. His vice-president – Lyndon Johnson – suddenly found himself sworn in as president on Air Force One. Johnson had done what he politically needed to do to stop the full implementation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, but despite the fact he was a Texan, he realised that a major civil rights act was needed to advance African Americans within USA society. He also used the shock of Kennedy’s murder to push forward the 1964 Civil Rights Act, part of what he was to term his vision for America – the “Great Society”.

The seeds of the 1964 Act were sown in Kennedy’s presidency. Johnson believed that he owed it to Kennedy’s life to push through this act especially as he was not an elected president. America had now moved on from the 1957 Act. Martin Luther King was now an international figure and Malcolm X was now proclaiming that a more militant approach could be used to gain civil rights. The apparent passive approach of the 1950’s was now gone. The northern city ghettos were now moving more and more towards militancy. Society had changed in just a few short years. Johnson realised this and wanted changed before potential civil unrest forced it through.

The civil rights bill’s success in passing Congress owed much to the murder of Kennedy. The mood of the public in general would not have allowed any obvious deliberate attempts to damage “Kennedy’s bill”. Even so, the bill had to survive the longest attempt in Congress to seriously weaken it. Johnson played the obvious card – how could anybody vote against an issue so dear to the late president’s heart ? How could anybody be so unpatriotic ? Johnson simply appealed to the nation – still traumatised by Kennedy’s murder. To win over the Southern hard-liners, Johnson told them he would not allow the bill to tolerate anybody using it as a lever to have an easy life regardless of their colour. By January 1964, public opinion had started to change – 68% now supported a meaningful civil rights act. President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act in July of that year. It introduced:

it gave federal government the right to end segregation in the South it prohibited segregation in public places. A public place was anywhere that received any form of federal (tax) funding (most places). This stopped lawyers homing in on the private places issue. This act tried to cover every aspect that some lawyer might use to avoid implementing this act. an Equal Employment Commission was created federal funding would not be given to segregated schools (note that these had been banned in 1954, ten years previous!) any company that wanted federal business (the biggest spender of money in American business) had to have a pro-civil rights charter. Any segregationist company that applied for a federal contact would not get it.

Many Southerners were horrified by the extent of the act. Johnson probably only got away with the act because he was from Texas. Ironically, the African American community were most vocal in criticising the act. There were riots by African Americans in north-eastern cities because from their point of view, the act did not go far enough and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (a predominantly Black political party) demanded seats at the Democratic Party Convention to be held in Atlantic City as they believed that they were more representative of the people who lived in Mississippi than the politicians who would usually have attended such conventions. Johnson was dismayed at this lack of public support among the African American community.

Regardless of these protests from both sides of society, many historians now believe that the 1964 Act was of major importance to America’s political and social development. The act has been called Johnson’s greatest achievement. He constantly referred to the morality of what he was doing and made constant reference to the immorality of the social structure within America that tolerated any form of discrimination. Johnson’s desire, regardless of his background, was to advance America’s society and he saw the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the way forward.

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