The most important social protest movement of the twentieth century was the civil rights movement, which provided countless numbers of people the opportunity to become involved in the struggle for racial equality. The civil rights movement also helped influence other social protest movements such as the student free speech, environmental, Chicano civil rights, Asian American civil rights, and gay and lesbian civil rights movements of the 1960s. Moreover, the movement produced some of the greatest leaders of the late twentieth century, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin. One of the greatest contributions of the civil rights movement was its effort to force the federal government to eliminate the American apartheid system, popularly known as Jim Crow, by passing some of the most significant laws of the twentieth century, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Public Law 88-532).
The Civil Rights Act outlawed racial, ethnic, religious, and sex discrimination in voting. It prohibited discrimination in hotels, restaurants, concert halls, bars, and theaters. The law gave the attorney general power to bring lawsuits against anybody denying a person equal treatment in a place of public accommodation. It outlawed race, sex, and religious discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotion and banned racial segregation in schools. And it created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to review complaints of discrimination in the workplace.
Although it was President Lyndon Baines Johnson who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, it was President John F. Kennedy who introduced the bill in Congress in June 1963. In March 1960, Kennedy, who was running for president, gave a strong civil rights speech supporting voting rights and school integration. In June he said that if he were elected president he would consider using an executive order for civil rights. Despite his pro-civil rights pronouncements as a presidential candidate, once he became president, Kennedy took almost no action on civil rights.
A major reason for Kennedy not moving more aggressively on the issue of civil rights was his fear of alienating southern Democrats whose support he needed for legislation he considered more important than civil rights. It became apparent to the civil rights community that Kennedy was more interested in other issues, such as foreign affairs. To be sure, the President saw civil rights issues as a nuisance. In his first State of the Union address in January 1961 Kennedy spoke about the scientific and military superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union and of how America maintained the “frontiers of freedom from Vietnam to West Berlin.” During the almost twenty-nine-minute address he pointed out four areas of opportunity, including the Atlantic Alliance and the search for worldwide peace. The one issue he did not mention was civil rights.
Kennedy’s inaction on the civil rights front was a disappointment to civil rights leaders. James Farmer, the head of the Congress of Racial Equality, said that Kennedy was expected to keep one of his promises to end housing discrimination with “one stroke of the pen” and sign an executive order. But after waiting a year for Kennedy to sign the executive order, “we decided that his pen had run dry.”
Despite his silence on civil rights during his first year in office, Kennedy would speak on the issue a year later in the 1962 State of the Union address. Kennedy emphasized the success of enforcing existing laws, “through persuasion, negotiation, and litigation.” He noted that he had issued a “comprehensive order to guarantee the right to equal employment opportunity in all federal agencies and contractors.” He also asserted that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s committee had “done much” including the voluntary “Plans for Progress” which had in “all sections of the country” achieved “a quiet but striking success in opening up to all races new professional, supervisory, and other job opportunities.” Admitting that there was much more to be done, Kennedy said that there were pending bills that were “appropriate methods of strengthening these basic rights which have our full support.”
Kennedy’s public support for civil rights bills was mostly due to pressure from civil rights activists. Civil rights leaders urged Kennedy to come up with stronger legislation to assure voting rights, end employment discrimination, and assure equality in places of public accommodation. In the early 1960s activists had launched several campaigns throughout the country, including Bob Moses and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration drive in McComb, Mississippi, and James Meredith’s attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi. One of the most significant endeavors was the Freedom Rides. Well over 400 black and white civil rights activists challenged segregation on interstate travel by riding in integrated teams across the South. When vicious mobs attacked the Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama, and an angry crowd surrounded a church in Montgomery where Martin Luther King, Jr., and supporters of the Freedom Riders were holding a rally, President Kennedy sent in federal marshals. The President’s action forced the governor of Alabama to send in the National Guard to protect King and the activists. The efforts of the Freedom Riders persuaded Attorney General Robert Kennedy to petition the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue an order outlawing segregation in travel.
If the Freedom Riders convinced the Kennedy administration to take steps on interstate travel, the Birmingham, Alabama, campaign of 1963 moved the President to take much broader action. In the spring of 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began a boycott of downtown businesses, participated in sit-ins, and held demonstrations to protest racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. In response, Public Safety Director Eugene “Bull” Conner used high-pressure water hoses and police dogs to attack the protesters. Most Americans were shocked by the sight of non-violent civil rights activists sprayed with powerful water hoses and attacked by dogs, and by the knowledge that hundreds of young people had been thrown in jail. Moreover, the confrontation in Birmingham embarrassed Kennedy because it gave the United States’ Cold War adversaries the opportunity to criticize America for human rights violations.
In response to the Birmingham campaign, Kennedy noted, in what has become known as his “Ugly Situation in Birmingham” speech of May 1963, that his administration had been watching the crisis in Birmingham to see if there were violations of federal civil rights laws. His administration had been trying to get both sides together to come up with a settlement. The president sent Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall to Birmingham to try to end “a spectacle which was seriously damaging the reputation of both Birmingham and the country.” Although a settlement was reached that ended protests in Birmingham, civil rights leaders did not end protests nationwide. In January 1963, A. Philip Randolph, head of the American Negro Labor Council and organizer of the 1941 March on Washington, had called for a massive demonstration at the nation’s capital.
The events in Birmingham and the civil rights leaders’ promise of continued demonstrations moved Kennedy to send a civil rights bill to Congress, which he did on June 19. However, the President did not live to see the passage of the act. Living up to his promise to carry on John F. Kennedy’s agenda, President Lyndon Baines Johnson pushed for the passage of the civil rights bill by lobbying southern congressmen to vote in favor of it.
Despite Johnson’s efforts, southern senators launched an eight-month filibuster, the longest in Senate history, to stop passage of the Civil Rights Act. The stopping of the filibuster and the eventual passage of the bill was due to the support of Republican Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader who used his power to get fellow Republicans to embrace their civil rights heritage by voting in favor of the bill. Credit also has to be given to the NAACP’s chief lobbyist Clarence Mitchell, the United Auto Workers Union’s head counsel Joseph Raul, civil rights activists, labor groups, and ordinary Americans who wrote letters and lobbied Congress for the bill’s passage. As author Clay Risen points out, the efforts of less recognized figures in history like conservative Representative Howard Smith, who amended the bill so that it included barring sex discrimination, an item not part of the Kennedy bill, should be given credit for the passage of the act. The 1964 Civil Rights Act helped end the system of Jim Crow, making it one of the most important pieces of legislation in the twentieth century.
Clarence Taylor is Professor of Modern African American History, Religion, and Civil Rights at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He is the author of Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union (Columbia University Press, 2011) and co-editor of the prizewinning collection Civil Rights Since 1787: A Reader in the Black Struggle (New York University Press, 2000).