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.
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.
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.