What is the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted by the US government in the 20th century is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a huge leap forward in attempting to end the hate, discrimination, and marginalization created by racism, sexism, or intolerance of religious choice. Primarily, the law was aimed at protecting the rights of African Americans and other people of color, but it also included provisions to protect the rights of people of any religious background and of any gender.

President Kennedy sent the Civil Rights Act to Congress in 1963.
President Kennedy sent the Civil Rights Act to Congress in 1963.

Though African Americans had long been free of slavery, phrases like "separate but equal" and Jim Crow laws, particularly in the South, denied them the right to compete for the highest jobs, eat in restaurants, shop in stores or stay, in hotels of their choosing or to make choices regarding where they wanted to live. Most importantly, many African Americans were barred from attending some of the best schools in the country due to segregation policies and were subjected to unfair tests in order to be able to gain the right to vote. This was in no way the fair or equal standing merited by the fact that they were full citizens of the US.

Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., a leader of the Civil Rights movement.
Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., a leader of the Civil Rights movement.

Interestingly enough, the fact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits gender discrimination is a matter of contention among historians. Many people did not favor completely equal rights for women, particularly in the workforce. The addition to the bill was added by a Virginia Democrat, Senator Howard W. Smith, who in his initial response to the bill as part of the Rules Committee was to attempt to stall it for as long as possible. Some argue that Smith deliberately added gender to make the bill less palatable, and others suggest Smith's known association with feminist Alice Paul made his addition understandable.

The act was supported by President John F. Kennedy, who sent the bill to Congress in 1963. Kennedy was much inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, led by people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and also by the high degree of participation in the movement by many of the nation's young people, many of them strongly supportive of Kennedy. Clearly, the time was ripe for reconsidering how Americans viewed each other from a legal perspective. Kennedy's assassination in late 1963 halted the bill's progress, however, and credit to continuing pursuit of its passage must be given to Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Johnson.

The basic provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 include the following:

  • Abolishment of unfair or unequal applications for voters of color, but provisions still held for administering literacy tests to black voters.
  • Prohibition of discrimination or segregation policies in publicly owned businesses like hotels, restaurants, and theaters. Exceptions to this rule included those clubs like “gentleman’s clubs” that were considered private.
  • Public facilities should be open to all and no person could be denied access to their use.
  • Desegregation of schools and empowerment of the Attorney General to file suits against schools that maintained segregation policies.
  • Disallowment of federal funds to any organization practicing discrimination.
  • Prohibition of discrimination in the workforce based on race, gender or religious orientation, or based on association with people of other races, gender or religious orientation, unless a specific national origin, gender or religious orientation was required for the job.
  • Empowerment of the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to act to enforce laws regarding fair hiring practice, and equal pay.

Though the act passed in the House and Senate, it did not pass unanimously. Opposition and support of the bill was, by and large, split on geographical lines instead of party lines, with Southern Democrats and Republicans opposing the bill and Northern Democrats and Republicans supporting it. The law can also be seen as simply a beginning step in a series of battles to end unfair treatment of marginalized populations, and there are some that argue that it is still not as far reaching as it should be. Additions to the act have been made since it was first enacted, including barring discrimination against pregnant women and adding clearer definitions of sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

President Lyndon Johnson deserves credit for pushing the Civil Rights Act after President Kennedy was killed.
President Lyndon Johnson deserves credit for pushing the Civil Rights Act after President Kennedy was killed.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Cafe41 -I think that there were two camps regarding the Civil Rights movement.

The Dr. Martin Luther King camp was more in line with peaceful marches in order to protest acts of blatant discrimination, while the Malcom X camp sought equality at all means which included acts of violence.

Although both men were assassinated their imprint on American society will always be remembered.


Subway11 -Although the establishment of the voting rights for blacks was legally present, it was not until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that poll taxes and literacy tests were deemed illegal with respect to voting.

It was the very first time that blacks were truly afforded the equal right to vote. This was the heart and soul of Dr. Martin Luther King’s struggles for equality.

He believed rightfully so that the right to vote was an inherent power afforded to all citizens. He later accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in the Civil Rights movement. He realized that this was the start of the struggle not the end of it.


Cupcake15- I know what you mean. When you think about voting rights of blacks it was amazing to see what a struggle it was for them to obtain normal voting rights.

Although Eisenhower passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and then the Civil Rights Act of 1960 which pertained to the establishment of voting rights for blacks there were still discriminatory measures in place.

It is so hard to believe how voting rights violations and Jim Crow laws were even allowed in the first place.

To think that interracial marriage was once illegal is insane. As a matter of fact there was the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Loving v Virginia in 1967 that said that the ban on interracial marriage violated the 14th amendment and did not allow equal protection for these individuals.

It is still hard to comprehend that it took so long for racial discrimination to finally be addressed.


It is amazing how far we have come from the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement to electing the first black president of the United States.

The Civil Rights act of 1964 came out of the influences of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. It was a landmark legislation that prohibited racial discrimination with regards to public places and employment.

It is included protections against sexual and gender based discrimination as well as discrimination against anyone’s religion.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included the formation of the EEOC. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formulated in July of 1965 in order to ensure that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is followed.

To date many companies have had to fill out questionnaires regarding their workforce and ensure that a certain percentage of those employed come from minority backgrounds.

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