Reformism: The Civil Rights Act of 1964
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was vigorously and vociferously opposed by the Southern states. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law nonetheless.” — Henry Rollins
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the nation’s premier civil rights legislation. The Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote. It did not end discrimination; however, but it did open the door to further progress.
Although the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments outlawed slavery, provided for equal protection under the law, guaranteed citizenship, and protected the right to vote for African Americans, individual states continued to allow unfair treatment of minorities and passed Jim Crow laws allowing segregation of public facilities. These were upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 US 537 (1896), which found state laws requiring racially segregated facilities that were “separate but equal” to be constitutional. This finding helped continue legalized discrimination well into the 20th century.
Following World War II, pressures to recognize, challenge, and change inequalities for minorities grew. One of the most notable challenges to the status quo was the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), which questioned the notion of “separate but equal” in public education. The Court found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and a violation of the 14th Amendment. This decision polarized Americans, fostered debate, and served as a catalyst to encourage more federal action to protect civil rights. See the photo above.
Many Attempts at Change
Each year, from 1945 until 1957, Congress considered and failed to pass a civil rights bill. Congress finally passed limited Civil Rights Acts in 1957 and 1960, but they offered only moderate gains. As a result of the 1957 Act, the United States Commission on Civil Rights was formed to investigate, report on, and make recommendations to the President concerning civil rights issues. This institution is in operation even now. At the grass roots level, sit-ins, boycotts, Freedom Rides, the founding of organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, local demands for inclusion in the political process, all were both in response to and were meant to quicken the federal civil rights legislative process in the 1950s and early 1960s.
1963 was a crucial year for the Civil Rights Movement. Social pressures continued to build with events such as the Birmingham Campaign, televised clashes between peaceful protesters and authorities, the murders of civil rights workers Medgar Evers and William L. Moore, the March on Washington, and the deaths of four young girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. There was no turning back. Civil rights were firmly on the national agenda and the federal government was forced to respond.
The Civil Rights Act is Born; A President is Assassinated
In response to the report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, President John F. Kennedy proposed, in a nationally televised address, a Civil Rights Act of 1963. A week after his speech, Kennedy submitted a bill to Congress addressing civil rights, H.R. 7152. He urged African American leaders to use caution when demonstrating since new violence might alarm potential supporters. Kennedy met with businessmen, religious leaders, labor officials, and other groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality, CORE, and the NAACP, while also maneuvering behind the scenes to build bipartisan support and negotiate compromises over controversial topics.
Following President Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and newly inaugurated President Lyndon B. Johnson continued to press for passage of the bill. As Dr. King noted, in a January 1964 newspaper column, legislation “will feel the intense focus of Negro interest…It became the order of the day at the great March on Washington last summer. The Negro and his white compatriots for self-respect and human dignity will not be denied.”
The House of Representatives debated H.R. 7152 for nine days, rejecting nearly 100 amendments designed to weaken the bill. It passed the House on February 10, 1964 after 70 days of public hearings, appearances by 275 witnesses, and 5,792 pages of published testimony.
Final Challenges Before Passage
The real battle was waiting in the Senate, however, where concerns focused on the bill’s expansion of federal powers and its potential to anger constituents who might retaliate in the voting booth. Opponents launched the longest filibuster in American history, which lasted 57 days and brought the Senate to a virtual standstill. Committed to the filibuster effort were the powerful Senators Richard Russell, Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd, William Fulbright, and Sam Ervin, among others.
Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen nurtured the bill through compromise discussions and ended the filibuster. Dirksen’s compromise bill passed the Senate after 83 days of debate that filled 3,000 pages in the Congressional Record. The House moved quickly to approve the Senate bill.
Within hours of its passage, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, with Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Height, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, and other civil rights leaders in attendance, signed the bill into law, declaring once and for all that discrimination for any reason on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was then and forever illegal in the United States of America.
How Does this Relate to Reformism?
The Little Rock Nine
In response to the Brown decision and pressure from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Little Rock, Arkansas School Board adopted a plan for the gradual integration of its schools. The first institutions to integrate would be the high schools, beginning in September of 1957. Two pro-segregation groups formed to oppose the plan, the Capital Citizens Council and the Mother’s League of Central High School.
Despite the opposition, nine students registered to be the first African Americans to attend Central High School, which opened in 1927 and was originally called Little Rock Senior High School. Minnijean Brown (1941-), Elizabeth Eckford (1941-), Ernest Green (1941-), Thelma Mothershed (1940-), Melba Patillo (1941-), Gloria Ray (1942-), Terrence Roberts (1941-), Jefferson Thomas (1942–2010) and Carlotta Walls (1942-) had been recruited by Daisy Gaston Bates (1914–1999), president of the Arkansas NAACP and co-publisher, with her husband L.C. Bates, of the Arkansas State Press, an influential African-American newspaper. Daisy Bates, and others from the Arkansas NAACP, carefully vetted the group of students to ensure that they all possessed the strength and determination to face the resistance they would encounter. In the weeks prior to the start of the new school year, the students participated in intensive counseling sessions prepping them on what to expect once classes began and how to respond to anticipated hostile situations. The group came to be known as the Little Rock Nine.
On September 2, 1957, Governor Orval Faubus announced that he would call in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the African-American students’ entry into Central High, claiming this action was for the students’ own protection. In a televised address, Faubus insisted that violence and bloodshed might break out if black students were allowed to enter the school. The following day, the Mother’s League held a sunrise service at the school as a protest against integration. That same day, federal judge Richard Davies issued a ruling that desegregation would continue as planned the next day.
Students Turned Away by Arkansas State Troops
The Little Rock Nine arrived for the first day of school at Central High on September 4, 1957. Eight arrived together, driven by Bates. Eckford’s family, however, did not have a telephone, and Bates could not reach her to let her know of the carpool plans. Therefore, Eckford arrived alone. The Arkansas National Guard ultimately prevented any of the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High. One of the most enduring images from that day is a photograph of Eckford, notebook in hand, stoically approaching the school as a crowd of hostile and screaming white students and adults surround her. Eckford later recalled that one of the women spat on her. The image was printed and broadcast widely, bringing the Little Rock controversy to national and international attention.
In the following weeks, Judge Davies began legal proceedings against Governor Faubus, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower attempted to persuade Faubus to remove the National Guard and let the Little Rock Nine enter the school. Davies ordered the Guard removed on September 20, and the Little Rock Police Department took over to maintain order. The police escorted the nine African-American students into the school on September 23, through an angry mob of some 1,000 white protesters gathered outside. Amidst ensuing rioting, the police removed the nine students. On September 24, President Eisenhower sent in 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and placed them in charge of the 10,000 National Guardsmen on duty. Escorted by the troops, the Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes on September 25.
Legal challenges to integration continued throughout the year, and Faubus publicly expressed his wish on numerous occasions that the Little Rock Nine be removed from Central High. Although several of the black students had positive experiences on their first day of school, according to a September 25, 1957 report in The New York Times, they experienced routine harassment and even violence throughout the rest of the year. Patillo, for instance, was kicked, beaten and had acid thrown in her face, and at one point, white students burned an African-American effigy in a vacant lot across from the school. Ray was pushed down a flight of stairs, and the Little Rock Nine were barred from participating in extracurricular activities. Brown was expelled from Central High in February of 1958 for retaliating against the attacks; and it was not only the students who faced harassment, Ray’s mother was fired from her job with the State of Arkansas when she refused to remove her daughter from the school. The 101st Airborne and the National Guard remained at Central High for the duration of the year. On May 25, 1958, Green, the only senior among the Little Rock Nine, became the first African-American graduate of Central High. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.
How Else Does this Relate to Reformism?
The University of Alabama is Forced to Desegregate
The “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” took place at Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. George Wallace, the then Democratic Governor of Alabama, in a symbolic attempt to keep his inaugural promise of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and stop the desegregation of schools, stood at the door of the auditorium to try to block the entry of two black students, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood.
Jones and Hood pre-registered in the morning at the Birmingham courthouse. They selected their courses and filled out all of their forms there. They arrived at Foster Auditorium to have their course loads reviewed by advisers and to pay their fees. They remained in their vehicle as Wallace, attempting to uphold his promise as well as for political show, blocked the entrance to Foster Auditorium with the media watching. Then, flanked by federal marshals, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach told Wallace to step aside. However, Wallace interrupted Katzenbach and gave a speech on states’ rights.
Katzenbach called President Kennedy, who had previously issued a presidential proclamation demanding that Wallace step aside, and told him of Wallace’s actions in ignoring the proclamation as it had no legal force. In response, Kennedy issued Executive Order 11111, which had already been prepared, authorizing the federalization of the Alabama National Guard. Four hours later, Guard General Henry Graham commanded Wallace to step aside, saying, “Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States.” Wallace then spoke further, but eventually moved, and Jones and Hood completed their registration.
In the days following the enactment, the National Guard were ordered to remain on the campus owing to a large Ku Klux Klan contingent in the surrounding area. Wallace and Kennedy exchanged volatile telegrams over it. Wallace objected to Kennedy ordering the Guard to remain on the campus and said that Kennedy bore responsibility if something happened. Kennedy responded stating that Executive Order 11111 made it clear that responsibility for keeping the peace remained with the State Troopers under Wallace’s control and said he would revoke the order if assurances were made. Wallace refused stating that he would not be intimidated and cited that Executive Order 11111 was passed without his knowledge. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.
Is There Any Further Way that this Can Relate to Reformism?
As one can clearly see, by 1963, segregation laws leftover from the the now deteriorating Jim Crow period; though they were beginning to be dismantled, were still not fully gone. In locations all over the country, segregation was still alive, well, and part of the American way of life. So, after controversial incidents like the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School and the University of Alabama, African Americans began to get more and more active for their own cause, forming organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Nation of Islam. They also began to get more aggressive with their organizing efforts, reaching out to thousands of people across the country that they had not previously worked their hardest to reach out to, especially those peoples in the rural South. It was Jim Crow laws and the KKK that had prevented such work from bearing fruit or even being planted at all before the early 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to reach its peak.
The SCLC was lead by Martin Luther King, Jr., probably the most famous of the African leaders of the era. Probably the most well remembered leader of SNCC will forever be Stokely Carmichael, not only for his work with SNCC, but also for his transition into the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and finally, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. For the Nation of Islam, there could have been no greater leader than Malcolm X. Though, he was never the top leader of the organization, he did become their most powerful speaker, and when he left their organization, he quickly outshone them on his own.
So, going into 1964, the year that the Civil Rights Act was finally passed, the African American Civil Rights Movement, as many historians will now argue, was beginning to reach a peak. It is at this point that cooperative efforts made by Dr. King and other African American leaders began to pay off. King’s work with President Kennedy prior to his assassination carried over to President Johnson, and and just two days before the nation’s birthday in 1964 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. However, did this law really deliver on its promises, or was it just another ill gotten promise made only to be broken at the first chance possible? The law officially, supposedly, declared, once and for all, that discrimination, for any reason, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was illegal in the United States of America, but has this really changed? Did one man signing a piece of paper end centuries of inbred hatred and racism? Not likely. In fact, the last ten years is evidence that the United States is far from being the kind of nation that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supposed to create. African American males are still the most highly imprisoned Americans. They are all still they most likely to shot by the police, and they are sill the mostly likely to be arrested without cause.
The real reason that this is still a problem is that African Americans, once they realized that white people were only willing to take change so far, never organized a strong enough movement to resist this restraint placed on them by the white powers. There are several reasons why this is, a couple of which will be the topic of subsequent articles on reformism. One particular method is political isolation. The dominant political parities, north or south, create Gerrymandered voter districts so as to isolate the voting power of their African American populations. If that is not possible, they attempt to buy off their African American voters with all black voter districts, or districts where the population is so black that a black representative cannot fail to be elected. Voter ID laws are now another method that are being used to attack poor people’s ability to participate in politics. These laws are almost always targeted at poor African Americans. They also created housing and welfare projects that were intentionally designed to target poor African American communities in America’s poor inner cities. These programs were meant to keep African American populations localized and away from white population who were moving out to suburbs in what came to be know as the “White Flight Movement.” The white powers intentionally recreated segregation.
There is, of course, also the influx of illegal narcotics into America’s inner cities. By now, formal and legal historical documents have proven to be true what was once shouted off by the federal government as ludicrous lies and demented conspiracy theories. The CIA and other agencies of the federal government have colluded and now collude with foreign governments and criminal syndicates to secure, ship, and distribute some of the most addictive drugs on the planet onto American streets and into the hands of American citizens. Further, it does so purposely to keep the American people doing anything stupid like becoming socially aware and standing up for their rights. From the fifties to the mid-seventies, the drug of choice was Heroin, and it had a powerful hold on on people.
However, in the mid-seventies a more local and more addictive drug hit the scene, Cocaine; and in the early eighties, a new cheaper form of the drug hit the streets, Crack. The Crack epidemic was by far the worst drug epidemic in US History, and it was intentionally set off by the government to generate a cover for the United States’ illicit operations with these foreign governments and criminal syndicates. It was to be known as the; “War on Drugs,” and worse, it intentionally targeted the African American community, so as to ensure that they would never seriously challenge their position in the American social structure ever again. One of the ways that this was made so was by using these drugs to criminalize African Americans, which made it impossible for them register to vote, and thus, interact in the political power structure. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.
So, finally, one last time, what does this say about the Civil Rights Act of 1964? It essentially means that it is not worth the paper that it is written on, and it means that the only way that African Americans are going to get the real justice that they deserve in this country is if they use more aggressive measures to get it. Now, this does not necessarily mean that they need to use violence to get the equal treatment that they deserve, but it does mean that they need to start to use more unconventional organizing methods that will catch their oppressors off guard. Further, when the hammer is dropped by the white man, they need to be able to withstand the blow, which means they need to be able to unite under one flag, and they need to be able to work without the help of other races. This really needs to be a modern Black Power movement of sorts. Finally, more legislation is not the answer to their problem, especially if it signed by the hand of the very same oppressor that continues to keep them down.