Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson reflected that Americans had begun their “long struggle for freedom” with the Declaration of Independence. Although that document had proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” such freedom had eluded most Americans of African descent until the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States in 1865. In the years immediately following, the nation ratified two additional amendments, and the United States Congress passed a number of laws extending full citizenship rights to African Americans. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, new discriminatory laws and practices took hold in the states and left the promise of equality languishing and unfulfilled for decades.
The social, legal, and political forces that battled discrimination for decades won a major victory with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the most significant piece of U.S. civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. With eleven sections, the act prohibited various types of discrimination in voting, public accommodations, public facilities, public education, federally-funded programs, and employment. It was a culmination of civil rights advocates’ efforts to gain federal protection for the basic citizenship rights of African Americans.
The bill that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was originally proposed by President John F. Kennedy on June 19, 1963. After Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, President Lyndon B. Johnson pressed hard in the U.S. Congress, with support of the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the U.S. Justice Department, and key members of Congress such as Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), Everett Dirksen (R-IL), Emanuel Celler (D-NY), and William McCulloch (R-OH), to secure the bill’s passage. After eight months of congressional debate, the bill passed in the U.S. Senate on June 19, 1964. The House voted to adopt the Senate-passed bill on July 2, and that same day President Johnson signed the bill into law. The Supreme Court upheld the act, and the desegregation of public accommodations and facilities was immediately implemented.