With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the federal government offered its immense power to the struggle to realize a more just and inclusive American society that had begun a century earlier with Reconstruction. But passage of the act was not the end of the story. The act did not fulfill all of the goals of civil rights activists. It would take further grassroots mobilization, judicial precedent, and legislative action to guarantee civil rights for African Americans.
In response to a new wave of protest, the U.S. Congress soon followed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act focused on redressing the legacy of discrimination against African Americans’ access to the ballot. The acts were swiftly tested in court and ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court in a variety of decisions beginning in 1964.
Emboldened by these remarkable achievements, other groups marginalized by discrimination have organized to assert their rights. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, disenfranchised Americans have used it to challenge discrimination and harassment based upon race, national origin, religion, gender, and more.
The 1964 Election
In the 1964 presidential election President Lyndon Johnson ran against Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), the Republican candidate. Senator Richard Russell, Jr., (D-GA) warned Johnson that his strong support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “will not only cost you the South, it will cost you the election.” Johnson went on to win the presidency, in a landslide victory, by more than fifteen million votes. He captured ninety-four percent of the black vote. Goldwater won his native state of Arizona and five states in the Deep South.
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Franklin McMahon. Democratic National Convention, Lyndon B. Johnson nominated, 1964. Watercolor and graphite. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (197.01.00)
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Council of Federated Organizations
The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of civil rights groups, was formed in 1962 to coordinate civil rights activities in Mississippi. Robert Moses of SNCC served as director and Aaron Henry of the NAACP as president. In 1964 Moses led COFO’s Freedom Summer project, a major voter registration campaign that joined hundreds of white college students with black activists. Freedom volunteers registered black voters and set up schools. Violence pervaded the summer. Three civil rights workers were murdered and scores were beaten and arrested. Churches and homes were bombed or burned. The project focused national attention on the plight of Mississippi’s blacks and led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
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Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was organized during Freedom Summer of 1964 by Robert Moses, Aaron Henry, and David Dennis of CORE, and Amzie Moore of the NAACP. The party was designed to serve as an alternative to Mississippi’s all-white Democratic Party. MFDP delegates went to the Democratic National Convention in August 1964 to demand to be seated in place of the regular delegation, which President Johnson feared would prompt the Southern states to walk out. He sent Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to offer the MFDP a compromise calling for two black delegates to be seated alongside the white delegates. MFDP refused the offer and walked out of the convention disillusioned. Thereafter, SNCC and MFDP found other ways to achieve political power.
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Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer
Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) is most recognized for helping to coordinate the Mississippi Summer of Freedom for SNCC in 1964. Growing up in Mississippi she was familiar with segregation and the effect it had on African Americans in the rural areas of the South. Hamer attended many rallies and conferences addressing civil rights issues and signed on to help register black voters in 1962. She began to use her singing as a way to give strength to fellow demonstrators as she strongly believed the civil rights movement had its foundation in the spiritual realm. After registering to vote in August 1962, she lost her job and her home. Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 as a response to the all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention.
Warren K. Leffler. Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964. Photographic print. U.S. News and World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (203.00.00)
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Testing the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Heart of Atlanta Motel case was a significant test of the newly-minted 1964 Civil Rights Act. It determined whether Title II of the act would have the power to enforce African Americans’ access to public accommodations, or if it would falter under the weight of judicial scrutiny. In most parts of the South, African Americans faced pervasive discrimination in public accommodations and were often forced to sleep in automobiles because they could not rent a hotel room. Heart of Atlanta was one motel that refused to rent rooms to African Americans. The court held that Congress has the power to desegregate privately owned public accommodations.
“I agree most emphatically. It sounds like hamburgers are more important than human rights.”
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Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg (1908–1990) concurred in the judgment of the Heart of Atlanta case and added that Congress had the power to enforce Title II of the Civil Rights Act under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Goldberg emphasized, “The primary purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 … is the vindication of human dignity and not mere economics.” Goldberg quoted the Senate Commerce Committee, emphasizing the purpose of the act is to “solve this problem, the deprivation of personal dignity that surely accompanies denials of equal access to public establishments.”
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Civil Rights Activist Sam Mahone Interviewed by Hasan Kwame Jeffries in 2013
Civil rights activist Sam Mahone ( b. 1945) remembers testing the Civil Rights Act at a restaurant in Albany, Georgia, the day after it passed in an interview conducted by Hasan Kwame Jeffries (b. 1973) for the Civil Rights History Project in 2013.
The Black Arts Movement
The Civil Rights Movement produced a new generation of writers, artists, dramatists, and directors. Racial appreciation through art, history and culture was the beginning of the Black Arts Movement. There was a founding of writers’ groups, community theaters, literary magazines, and small presses nation-wide. Early participants included actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Robert Hooks, artists Margaret Burroughs and Elmer Lewis, and playwrights Ted Shine and LeRoi Jones. Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka, wrote the controversial play Dutchman about black and white relations in the North. It premiered at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York and received the 1964 Obie Award for Best American Play. Shown here is a Howard University Theater playbill for the play’s production.
The Drama Department Howard University Players Present “Dutchman” Le Roi Jones’ Comedy Melodrama on Negro, White Relations in the North and “Sho is Hot in The Cotton Patch” Ted Shine’s Satire on Negro, White Relations in the South. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Theater Company, ca. 1968. Playbill. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (206.00.00) Courtesy of Howard University
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Letter from Randa Jo Downs
Francis Herman Flach (1922−2000), father of Randa Jo Downs, was an employee of the Department of Education, Health and Welfare. After the Civil Rights Act was passed, he investigated complaints of violations of Title VI in hospitals. He traveled throughout the South to instruct hospital administrators on how to desegregate their facilities. In the summer of 1964, at the age of fourteen, Randa Jo accompanied her father and his African American coworker on one of these trips to Little Rock, Arkansas, which she recounts in this letter.
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Civil Rights Activist Purcell Conway Interviewed by Joseph Mosnier in 2011
Civil rights activist Purcell Conway (b. 1948) discusses testing the Civil Rights Act immediately after it was passed at the beaches in St. Augustine, Florida, in an interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier (b. 1962) for the Civil Rights History Project in 2011.
March from Selma to Montgomery
In January 1965 Martin Luther King Jr., President of SCLC, launched a campaign to secure the right to vote in Selma, Alabama, following an unsuccessful voter registration drive begun by SNCC in 1963. At a February rally in nearby Marion, state troopers killed twenty-six-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson. Afterward, King proposed a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. On March 7, five-hundred marchers led by SCLC’s Hosea Williams and SNCC’s John Lewis were attacked by state troopers and posse men at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with tear gas, whips, and billy clubs. The violence, televised before a national audience, would be known as “Bloody Sunday.” On March 9, King and Ralph Abernathy led marchers who were turned around by state troopers across the bridge. The successful Selma to Montgomery March finally began on March 21 and concluded on March 25, where approximately 25,000 marchers, black and white, assembled at the Alabama State Capitol.
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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Jackson, Mississippi
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding federal agency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended the life of the commission and allowed it to investigate alleged vote fraud. In these excerpts from a documentary produced for the commission on hearings conducted February 16–20, 1965, in Jackson, Mississippi, the commission, after being welcomed by Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr., (D-MS) questions the registrar of a county where no African American had successfully registered to vote during his tenure. Civil rights activist Unita Blackwell (b. 1933), who later became the first African American woman mayor in Mississippi, also testifies.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to urge the passage of a voting rights bill in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign in Selma, Alabama. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided direct federal enforcement to remove literacy tests and other devices that had been used to disenfranchise African Americans. It authorized the appointment of federal registrars to register voters and observe elections. It also prevented states from changing voter requirements and gerrymandering districts for a period of five years without federal review. The poll tax, a point of dispute, was fully banned in 1966. The percentage of black adults registered to vote in the South increased from thirty-five percent in 1964 to almost sixty-five percent by 1969.
President Lyndon B. Johnson gives Dr. Martin Luther King one of the pens used in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in the background is Rep Claude Pepper (center) and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, August 6, 1965. New York World- Telegraph and the Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (278.00.00)
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