Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Congress passed comprehensive civil rights legislation, giving life to the constitutional principle of “color-blind” equal protection of the law.

Summary of Event

After the Civil War and after ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, commonly referred to as the “Civil War Amendments,” Congress did little to enforce, by statute, the provisions of those amendments, particularly as they applied to voting and equal access to and protection of the law. Although some important advances were initiated by passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, most human rights observers agree that most of the provisions found in those laws did little if anything to eradicate the sometimes blatant discrimination suffered by many African Americans prior to 1964. Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil rights;United States African Americans;segregation African Americans;discrimination Segregation Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans [kw]Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (July 2, 1964) [kw]Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress Passes the (July 2, 1964) [kw]Rights Act of 1964, Congress Passes the Civil (July 2, 1964) [kw]Act of 1964, Congress Passes the Civil Rights (July 2, 1964) Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil rights;United States African Americans;segregation African Americans;discrimination Segregation Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans [g]North America;July 2, 1964: Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964[08110] [g]United States;July 2, 1964: Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964[08110] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 2, 1964: Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964[08110] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 2, 1964: Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964[08110] [c]Social issues and reform;July 2, 1964: Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964[08110] Dirksen, Everett Humphrey, Hubert H. [p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;civil rights Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;civil rights Celler, Emanuel Russell, Richard, Jr.

On February 28, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, perceived by most at the time as being a strong advocate of civil rights, proposed to Congress the need for strengthened civil rights legislation. Although Kennedy was in favor of greater gains for minorities, his civil rights agenda included only minor cosmetic additions to the civil rights laws already on the books. The agenda was conspicuous in its failure to advance fair employment guarantees.

Kennedy understood that a proposal for a stronger civil rights bill would be doomed to failure before ever reaching the floors of the House and Senate for debate. Kennedy recognized the barriers which a bill would have to cross before it came to a roll-call vote in either house of Congress. Two powerful anti-civil rights legislators stood in its way: Virginia Democrat Howard W. Smith Smith, Howard W. , chair of the House Rules Committee, and Mississippi Democrat James Eastland Eastland, James , chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

President Kennedy was keenly aware that his foreign policy initiatives regarding Cuba, Berlin, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union required maximum public support and congressional unity. He initially conceded to the powerful Democratic “Southern bloc” and advanced proposals that would not antagonize its members and therefore jeopardize his foreign policy program in Congress. He hoped that these halfway measures would indicate to his black constituents that he was at least doing something. Black leaders at the time understandably believed that they had been betrayed. The Black Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Black Leadership Conference on Civil Rights suggested that Kennedy had sacrificed domestic civil rights on the altar of foreign relations and re-election politics.

Not long after the president had sent his civil rights message to Congress, the issue of civil rights Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests manifested itself to the American public as an issue involving violations of fundamental human rights. In May of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;protests and demonstrations , Jr., began sit-in demonstrations across the South protesting segregation of public facilities and accommodations. The American public, only vaguely aware of the human rights violations taking place in some sections of their own country, were outraged and appalled as they viewed on the nightly news the likes of Birmingham, Alabama, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor Connor, Bull unleashing his dogs and opening up fire hoses to disperse peaceful protesters. The United States’ sense of justice required that President Kennedy take a leadership role to abolish these violations of human rights and to achieve civil rights for all American citizens.

President Kennedy, responding to that mandate as a matter of duty as well as political necessity, commissioned his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;civil rights , to draft a comprehensive civil rights bill to submit to Congress. Sent to Congress on June 19, 1963, the bill was originally referred to the House Judiciary Committee. It was “reported out” to the full House on November 20, 1963, and included, as an amendment, a fair employment proviso, thanks in large part to the leadership of committee chair Emanuel Cellar and his partner on the committee, Republican William McColloch McColloch, William . Normally, the next hurdle in the House would be to get the bill past the House Rules Committee, House Committee on Rules which had killed many past civil rights initiatives before they could come to a vote on the floor. Committee chair Smith had promised to utilize that strategy again.

It is difficult to ascertain the effect that John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 23, 1963, had on the success of the civil rights bill as it entered the Rules Committee phase. Most analysts concede that this unfortunate accident of history paradoxically set in motion a series of events supportive of the bill. Support might easily have not been as strong had the young president not been killed.

There are two strong arguments to support this theory. First, Lyndon B. Johnson became president. As a Southern Democrat with a questionable civil rights voting record as a member of the Senate, Johnson needed to dispel his “Southern” image among Northern liberals in Congress. In a more general sense, he needed to establish himself as a decisive and compassionate leader to the grief-stricken nation, a nation that would be going to the polls in less than a year. To accomplish these goals, and perhaps because he sincerely believed in the need to pass the civil rights legislation, President Johnson made passage of the civil rights bill his highest priority.

Kennedy had been martyred, and Congress quickly learned that any legislation introduced “in memory of” the slain president would be tough to vote against. When President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress on November 28, 1963, it was within this context that he appealed for quick passage of the former president’s bill.

It was also in this spirit that a majority of the House signed a discharge petition, filed on December 9, 1963, by Judiciary Committee chair Emanuel Cellar. This petition would get the bill to move directly from Howard Smith’s Rules Committee to the House floor for debate, without the addition of debilitating features likely to be tacked on by Smith. On January 30, 1963, the Rules Committee, yielding to the pressure of the petition and the president, allowed the bill to be reported out to the floor under an “open debate” rule. The floor debate took only nine days.

On February 10, 1964, with bipartisan support of Republicans and Northern Democrats, the House passed its version of the civil rights bill by a 290-130 roll-call vote. Following in the footsteps of the House, the Senate put the bill on a fast track. On February 26, 1964, it voted fifty-four to thirty-seven to bypass referring the bill to James Eastland’s Senate Judiciary Committee, where it could have been stalled or mortally wounded, and voted instead to place the bill directly on the Senate calendar for debate. It was resolved that the actual debate would commence on March 30, 1964.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2.


In an attempt to kill the measure outright, or at least to gain crippling amendments to the bill, a Southern Democratic filibuster was initiated on March 26, 1964, by Richard Russell, Jr., the Georgian leader of the Southern Democratic coalition. It was Russell’s belief that the only way for the bill’s supporters to bring the filibuster to a close would be to vote for cloture. This type of cloture required that two-thirds of those present and voting had to vote to end the filibuster. Russell was confident that the opposition would have to accept the Southern amendments to the bill on his terms. He and his supporters called the bluff of the rest of the Senate and lost.

Behind the bipartisan leadership and political maneuvering of the Senate majority floor leader for the bill, Hubert H. Humphrey, and Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen, a coalition of votes was put together to challenge the “Southern Strategy.” On June 10, 1964, the cloture measure came up for a vote. With all one hundred members present, the Senate voted seventy-one to twenty-nine to shut down the civil rights filibuster. For all intents and purposes, any opposition to the civil rights legislation was dead.

After accepting a number of primarily technical amendments by Dirksen dealing with the enforcement sections of the public accommodations and employment provisions, the Senate, on June 19, 1964, passed by a roll-call vote of seventy-three to twenty-seven the so-called “Mansfield-Dirksen” substitute version of the civil rights bill. Fearing a renewed Senate filibuster, Representatives Celler and McColluch accepted in principle the Senate version of the bill. The House formally agreed to the Senate compromise bill by a roll-call vote of 289-126 on July 2, 1964, thus concluding congressional action on the bill. Later that evening, President Johnson, in the presence of many of the bill’s sponsors and civil rights leaders, signed into law the most comprehensive and meaningful piece of civil rights legislation in American history.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation to be enacted into law in the twentieth century, put statutory “teeth” into the “color blind” language enunciated in the dissenting opinion of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and the majority opinion of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Congress invoked its authority to enact civil rights legislation under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution Constitution, U.S.;commerce clause rather than the equal protection clause of the same document. This allowed Congress wider authority to eliminate, among other things, discrimination in public accommodations and facilities, the symbolic focal point of the black civil rights movement, and job discrimination, which was viewed as a national problem. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that determinations made within its jurisdiction be made without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The major effect of the act has been to cast aside the legal barriers of segregation as they relate to voting, public education, public accommodations and facilities, federally assisted programs, and private employment.

Although it has certainly expanded opportunities of those affected in a legal sense, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has generated controversy over its enforcement and effects. Civil rights leaders and organizations have held since the inception of the law that the Civil Rights Act is a hollow promise, given that the law has done nothing to dispel the institutional forms of discrimination prevalent in society. Statistical evidence suggests that the employment rate, mortality rate, education level, and living conditions among minorities have in fact worsened since 1964.

On the other hand, nonminorities have become increasingly alienated by what they see as a gross transformation of the intent and letter of the Civil Rights Act. They cite, for example, disregard for a section of the act which expressly holds that preferential treatment in employment cannot be granted for the purpose of balancing a workforce by race or sex, and for another section which expressly guarantees that desegregation of schools will not be implemented in order to overcome racial imbalance. It is widely agreed, even in light of these concerns, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has gone a long way in guaranteeing the rights of minorities and in advancing the human rights atmosphere within the United States, setting an example for democratic nations worldwide. Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil rights;United States African Americans;segregation African Americans;discrimination Segregation Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bureau of National Affairs. The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Text, Analysis, Legislative History. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1964. Published as an “operations manual” on fair employment practices, public accommodations, and federal assistance, this publication is important because it describes the Civil Rights Act as it was understood at the time of its enactment. Includes an extensive legislative history of the act, as well as an analysis of each of the major provisions of the act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Joel, and George Strickler, Jr. The Law of Employment Discrimination: Cases and Materials. New York: Foundation Press, 1983. A compilation of U.S. Supreme Court and lower court decisions that relate to the law of employment discrimination, including a large number of landmark cases addressing the issue of discrimination as a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Valuable in understanding the courts’ evolving interpretation of this law. Available in most postsecondary and public libraries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986. A comprehensive and sympathetic history of the black Civil Rights movement, centering on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on more than seven hundred interviews with key figures in the Civil Rights movement and civil rights bill advocates. Includes a ninety-three page bibliography and ninety pages of notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kotz, Nick. Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Details the struggle for passage of civil rights legislation between the assassination of President Kennedy and the assassination of King. Focuses particularly on the role of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as an antagonist of both Johnson and King. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Robert H., ed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2004. Compilation of texts about the act, including contemporary primary sources by politicians such as Kennedy and Dirksen and by other observers, as well as critical evaluations of the effects of the law after its passage. Highly recommended. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whalen, Charles, and Barbara Whalen. The Longest Debate: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. New York: Mentor Books, 1986. Written by former congressman Charles Whalen, this book presents a concise and readable account of the legislative struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Particularly useful for those attempting to understand the procedure and politics of congressional lawmaking, specifically as it related to racial matters in the mid-1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years—a Reader and Guide. New York: Viking Press, 1987. A companion piece to the PBS television series of the same name, the book presents an easily read, yet highly informative, appraisal and account of the struggle to ensure basic human rights by enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights

Civil Rights Act of 1960

Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention

President Kennedy Is Assassinated

Poll Taxes Are Outlawed

Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered

Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations

Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act

Categories: History