The History of Civil Rights Act 1964


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is recognized to be amongst the most controversial, yet significant laws in America. After the debate, which is considered to be the most prolonged in the history of Senate, on July 2nd, 1964, it was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson (Aiken, Salmon, & Hanges, 2013). The years of protests, boycotts, and marches by the civil rights activists have been finally paid off. Although it was not the first attempt to bring equal rights to all nations in America, it was undoubtedly the most effective one.

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However, its achievements go beyond ending racial segregation in public places. As one of the prominent and ambitious Acts, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 influenced the country not only on a social but on a political level as well. First of all, it created changes in public policy, regulated the voting system, and ended racial injustice in the election process. Moreover, as every law, the act became a subject to all branches of the federal government, as well as to the system of checks and balances.

American Government Structure

The American Government is a balanced working system that consists of three main departments, Legislative, Judicial, and Executive. Every branch of the government is responsible for a particular set of tasks. For example, the Legislative branch makes law – Congress is the central source of the legislature, and it is divided into the Senate and the House of Representatives (Hersch & Shinall, 2015).

The president represents the Executive branch; the vice president and the Cabinet of advisors are also a part of this branch. Their primary role is to aid the president in enforcing the laws created by Congress. Finally, the Supreme Court, on behalf of the Judicial branch, decides whether the laws are constitutional. As such, Congress initiates the creation and passage of legislation, the president enforces them, and the Supreme Court determines their legitimacy.

Furthermore, the government structure of the US involves not only federal but also state and local governments. This form of governing bares the name of federalism – the sharing of power between different levels of entities (Sherman, 1964). It is also a source of conflict as state and local laws cannot conflict with national policy, but the federal government also does not have absolute power in all decisions.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is an example of federal power being used to change the situation in the whole country. It empowered the US Department of Justice to play a preeminent role in bringing judicial force to where it was needed. The elimination of segregation and discrimination based on people’s color, race, sex, religion, and national origin lies at the core of this act (Hayter, 2018). At the time of its development, these issues were prevalent in many states, especially in the South (Jacobs & Tope, 2007). Women and black people did not have the same rights as men and white people in many situations, including employment, public accommodation, and voting.

The act influenced the way judicial procedures were carried out. For instance, civil rights cases were moved to federal courts if the state courts had segregationist judges or all-white juries (Rosenberg, 2004). The act was enforced on the national level, and the Supreme Court did not support the idea that desegregation infringed on people’s constitutional rights. Thus, black people gained the possibility to use the legal system to demand equal rights, which influenced the outcome of trials.

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Checks and Balances

Through checks and balances, all branches are kept equal for the government to work justly and effectively. Although the structure described above presents the Supreme Court as the final decision-maker in the process of lawmaking, the system of checks and balances limits the Court’s authority and provides the other branches with tools to override the choice of the Judicial branch. Congress and the president can pass new acts that do not align with previous Supreme Court case rulings. However, as the Judicial branch interprets many of the outcomes of the new legislature based on the Constitution, this option is not always available.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an ambitious project, and it was supposed to be verified by all government departments. Initially, the previous president of the US, John F. Kennedy, proposed the legislation that would later become the Civil Rights Act. After the protests of the Senate and President Kennedy’s assassination, this bill was picked up by President Johnson (Andrews & Gaby, 2015). The Senate and House of Representatives acted as both a force to approve the bill and a barrier to its passage. Both voting sessions ended in favor of the bill, which demonstrated the agreement of the majority that the act was needed for the country’s citizens.

It should be noted that this development could be seen as disagreement with the previous actions of the Supreme Court. In the 1880s, the Court has ruled against Congress having any authority over discriminatory behaviors of private businesses (Aiken et al., 2013). This action led to the dismissal of the previous Civil Rights Act and pushed the results of civil rights activists’ struggle back. After the new act, however, the Supreme Court’s view on this issue changed. Thus, one can see how the balance between branches affected the new policy while being influenced by it at the same time.

Public Policy, Elections, and Media

After the bill passing, the Supreme Court started implementing its new policies to real life in court cases. The act prohibited discrimination in many spheres of life, but its contents were rather vague, prompting a discussion of possible limits. Local governments pushed back significantly, raising tension between local and federal governments as well as activists and those who opposed the new policy. Election platforms that were based on supporting or opposing the act gained more media attention. Desegregation was a part of the law, and it influenced how business owners would decide on which side they were in the situation. A similar sentiment could be seen in the media, which strived to appeal to their targeted demographics.

One may describe two major points of view about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that were prevalent in contemporary media. The first type of coverage was focused on the facts and the message sent out by the president and lawmakers. Thus, the information about the new act and its contents was discussed as well as the history of activism behind the bill’s development (Matthews, 2015). The New York Times reports also documented the pushback from the segregation-supporting South, showing how the outcomes of the act affected black people living in those areas.

According to an article from 1964, one of the Southern state citizen councils declared that “businessmen who refuse to become lawbreakers must be boycotted” (“Civil Rights Act,” 1964, para. 17). From these publications, one can also see the other perspective that was shown in the media.

In newspapers published in the South, the legislation was represented in a negative way. The coverage of the act was dry was emotional and driven by the segregationist sentiments expressed by both white citizens and local government representatives. The act’s detailed analysis showed what its contents do not require, insisting that the federal government does not have a right to manipulate business owners into agreeing to desegregation (Matthews, 2015). Some articles also described the new activities that black people were allowed to perform, framing it as “testing” the limits of the new law (Matthews, 2015). Thus, it can be observed that the majority of the media coverage was focused on the negative consequences of the policy.

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The Election Process and Voting

Before the act, voting for minorities, especially black people, had many barriers and elevated registration rules. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 enhanced and secured the rights of people of color to vote, specifically in the South. Furthermore, it guaranteed that voting policy is applied fairly to all races. For instance, voter registration rules were to be applied equally to citizens of all races, which removed some of the inequality or decreased the apparent bias against nonwhite residents. Thus, if a state were to use some other measures outside of a person’s citizenship status, it would have to be enforced for all voters.

However, the initial version of the act did not prohibit literacy tests and similar initiatives. These tests often were used against nonwhite voters and people without access to education (Santoro, 2008). Thus, the standard for citizenship being enough to grant voting rights was not established by the policy. While the act positively affected some aspects of the election process, its vague description of equal access prompted segregation supporters to continue racial and class division based on literacy.

The response to the act from the opposing side could be taken into consideration, as these citizens wanted to “vote out” the politicians who supported the new policy. The issue of segregation was one of the most prominent parts of the law, and it was the grounds for selecting political candidates to support or critique (Hayter, 2018). Although some people believed that the act would lower the popularity of President Johnson, he was able to win the next election and turn major states Republican, as it was the party that supported the bill at the time (Aiken et al., 2013). Thus, one may see that the Civil Rights Act also influenced the presidential election.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a significant impact on the political system of the United States. Its major move towards desegregation and anti-discrimination gathered significant pushback but strengthened the role of civil rights activists in shaping public policy. The act was a part of the checks and balances system in the country. It served as a response from the president and Congress to the previous rulings of the Supreme Court. The coverage of the bill was mostly negative due to the South’s strong opposition to desegregation and women’s rights. Nonetheless, in the end, the act changed the political makeup of the South in a major way, while also taking steps towards removing segregated spaces and voting barriers for nonwhite citizens.


Aiken, J. R., Salmon, E. D., & Hanges, P. J. (2013). The origins and legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Journal of Business and Psychology, 28(4), 383-399.

Andrews, K. T., & Gaby, S. (2015). Local protest and federal policy: The impact of the civil rights movement on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Sociological Forum, 30(S1), 509-527.

Civil Rights Act: How South responds. (1964). The New York Times. Web.

Hayter, J. M. (2018). To end divisions: Reflections on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Richmond Public Interest Law Review, 18(4), 500-514.

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Hersch, J., & Shinall, J. B. (2015). Fifty years later: The legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 34(2), 424-456.

Jacobs, D., & Tope, D. (2007). The politics of resentment in the post–civil rights era: Minority threat, homicide, and ideological voting in Congress. American Journal of Sociology, 112(5), 1458-1494.

Matthews, D. (2015). It’s the 51st anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Here’s how the media covered it in 1964. Splinter. Web.

Rosenberg, G. N. (2004). The 1964 civil rights act: The crucial role of social movements in the enactment and implementation of anti-discrimination law. Saint Louis University Law Journal, 49, 1147-1154.

Santoro, W. A. (2008). The civil rights movement and the right to vote: Black protest, segregationist violence and the audience. Social Forces, 86(4), 1391-1414.

Sherman Jr, H. L. (1964). Union’s duty of fair representation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Minnesota Law Review, 49, 771-820.

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