King Encyclopedia
Civil Rights Act (1964)

By the late 1950s, the political climate in the United States was changing in regards to civil rights. A new generation of African Americans refused to remain separated from opportunities available to other Americans, and many turned to the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his phi lo sophy of nonviolence as they pursued new civil rights legislation.

As the world witnessed the use of police dogs and fire hoses as weapons against nonviolent protesters in Birmingham, the movement to enact federal civil rights legislation was advanced. Fol lowing the Birmingham Campaign, President John F. Kennedy announced before the nation his plans for civil rights legislation. He rhetorically asked, "[W]ho among us would be content to have the co lor of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay? . . . I shall ask the Congress to make a commitment that has not been fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life." The March on Washington in 1963, a long with the murder of four little girls in Birmingham and the shock fol lowing Kennedy’s assassination, provided further momentum for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on 2 July, 1964. The legislation prohibited discrimination based on race, co lor, religion, or national origin in public establishments; and, a long with subsequent legislation, addressed discrimination in colleges and within emp loyment, setting a precedent for future Supreme Court cases.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 greatly enhanced the status of African Americans and other minority groups, placing greater responsibility on the federal government to protect previously disenfranchised groups from discriminatory treatment. Although the Civil Rights Act was in some respects a restatement of protections specified in the constitutional amendments enacted during Reconstruction, the impact of the new legislation was greater because of the expanded scope of federal regulatory powers and the continued protests by victims of discrimination.

The enactment of new civil rights legislation signaled a continuation rather than an end to the struggle, as the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)soon turned their attention to voting rights. In a telegram to King, fol lowing the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson stated, “Much can be done, and must be done, if the potential freedoms affirmed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are to be translated into practice and meaningful progress. The most direct responsibility of each citizen is to participate in the affairs of his nation, state and community by exercising his right to vote. Every qualified citizen must register and vote if we are to be worthy of the freedoms we enjoy and hope to obtain.”


Clayborne Carson, "Civil Rights Movement," in Leonard W. Levy, Kenneth Karst, & John West, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Constitution (New York: Macmillan Publishing,1992)

Stan Mendenhall, “ Everett Dirksen and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Illinois History Teacher. Volume 3:1, 1996 (Illinois: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 1996)

Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, (New York: The Free Press, 1994)