What Was the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

By Staff WriterLast Updated Jul 14, 2020 10:56:33 AM ET
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On June 15, 2020, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with the Supreme Court’s liberal wing to deliver a historic ruling protecting LGBTQ rights. At the heart of the case was a line from Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects against workplace discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex or national origin." In an opinion authored by Gorsuch, the court declared that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is also discrimination based on sex and therefore illegal under the law.

How did a civil rights law from the ‘60s end up at the heart of one of the Supreme Court’s first rulings on LGBTQ rights in the 2020s? Surprisingly, the ruling was unintentionally made possible by a Southern opponent of desegregation who was trying to prevent equal rights for Black Americans. This is how it happened.

Background

Following the end of the Civil War, the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments were passed to abolish slavery, make former slaves U.S. citizens and give them the right to vote respectively. However, in the decades that followed, numerous states, especially those in the South, worked to make sure that those rights couldn’t be acted upon. From literacy tests to grandfather clauses that kept anyone from voting whose grandfather couldn't also vote (i.e. former slaves), Black Americans were prevented from exercising the rights they had won. Acts of violence and terror also helped to keep them from fighting back.

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By the time John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, however, Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and more had made it clear that the situation had to change. While Kennedy tried to avoid taking action on segregation at first, in June of 1963, he outlined a massive civil rights bill to end segregation and give Black Americans the ability to exercise their right to vote.

On November 11th of that year, Kennedy was assassinated. His vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, succeeded him and vowed to pass the bill.

The Struggle to Pass the Bill

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 that Congress and Johnson went on to pass had a number of provisions. It banned voter registration requirements, like literacy tests and poll taxes, as well as discrimination or segregation in public spaces involved in interstate commerce; trade unions, schools or employers who do business with the federal government or participate in interstate commerce; and public schools. It also banned discrimination in determining who can receive funds from federal assistance programs and more.

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Opposition to the bill was fierce. Southern congressmen called it a violation of individual and state rights, and there were numerous attempts to sabotage the bill with so-called poison pill amendments — additions to a law intended to turn other lawmakers against it. One such amendment was proposed by Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia. He opposed both segregation and women’s rights, but he figured that by introducing language into the bill banning discrimination based on sex as well as race, color, religion or national origin, he could sink the bill.

Much to his chagrin, Johnson and Congress were determined to pass the bill anyway despite shakier support for the language based on sex. While a group of senators held the longest filibuster in U.S. history — 76 hours — to prevent the bill from becoming law, deals were made behind the scenes to win over opponents, and the bill moved to Johnson’s desk. When he finally signed the bill into law, Martin Luther King Jr. was in the room with him. He later described the act as "a second emancipation."

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Success and Consequences

The passage of the bill was by no means the end of opposition, however. It was brought all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices confirmed it to be constitutional. Protests and violence from white supporters of segregation also broke out, and a slew of pro-segregation lawmakers were voted into office. Johnson, a Democrat, famously mused, "It is an important gain, but I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."

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At the same time, the law also led to further legislation protecting civil rights for all Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 further strengthened protections against discriminatory voting laws, while the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made discrimination in selling, renting or buying property illegal. The law itself was also amended to extend protections to senior and disabled Americans as well as women in collegiate sports.

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The Act’s Legacy Today

When Smith inserted the word "sex" into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he didn’t intend on furthering women’s rights, let alone LGBTQ rights. In the words of Justice Gorsuch, however, "When the ex-press terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit."

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Photo Courtesy: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 hasn’t fully reconciled inequality in the country. As the killing of George Floyd and many other Black Americans has shown, people in the United States still get treated in fundamentally different ways based on skin color. There are also continuing inequalities from laws and practices that prevented Black Americans from owning property and making money in the past. In 2010, the median Black family had a total of $16,000 in wealth next to $130,000 for white families. Even when comparing families in the same income range, white families have three times more wealth on average than Black families.

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Additionally, the Civil Rights Act has also been weakened at times by court rulings, such as in Shelby County v. Holder, when the court ruled that states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting laws no longer needed clearance from the federal government to change their voting laws. The case quickly led to voter purges, voter ID laws and rollbacks on early voting and registration, all of which disproportionately make it harder for people of color to vote.

Despite its shortcomings, however, the Civil Rights Act continues to protect the freedoms of American citizens, and after the June 15th ruling, it’s proven to be as important to ensuring the rights of LGBTQ people as the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage. With federal protections against job discrimination and more, LGBTQ Americans are in a better position to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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