Our American Story

The 1964 Civil Rights Act Turns 50

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of James F. Dicke, II. 2012.147ab.

50 years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed one of the most historic and sweeping pieces of legislation in our nation’s history the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its passage was the vital tool needed to end segregation and tear down the walls separating the two highly unequal societies in America.

With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among the distinguished guests, Johnson set into law a means to fulfill the ideal “all men are created equal” penned in the Declaration of independence.

The legislation marked the beginning of the nation’s effort supported by the power of the federal government to bring meaning to the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Following the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 and was to provide African Americans equal justice under the law. Two years later, in 1870, the 15th Amendment was confirmed to guarantee the right to vote.

Even though the intentions of the two amendments were admirable, the reality was quite different. The decades between those amendments and the passage of the Civil Rights Act were filled with segregation, oppression, violence, and gross inequality.

With the enactment of Jim Crow laws and the 1896 United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, two very different Americas emerged during those years. Virtually every element of society was separated by race from movie theaters to schools to drinking fountains. Perhaps most egregious were the voting restrictions many states had created to keep African Americans away from the ballot box.

President Johnson, in his address to the nation just prior to signing the historic bill, spoke to the hypocrisy of this separation:

“Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.

We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.

We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.

We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.

The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand — without rancor or hatred — how this all happened. But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”

The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act came slightly more than a year after Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. That address was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an estimated 250,000 Americans who were rallying in Washington, D.C. in support of civil rights.

King and others had put mounting pressure on American political leaders to take action. King’s tactic of “civil disobedience” and non-violent protests throughout the South gained the movement growing support throughout the nation.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not initially have the enforcement powers needed to make it truly effective. However, Congress progressively strengthened the legislation.

While the 1964 Civil Rights Act opened the door for the federal government to engage in ending race-based segregation, it would take the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure African Americans enjoyed the voting rights guaranteed to all Americans in the Constitution.