50 years: Civil Rights Act of 1964 fueled change in America

“It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great president from another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. … Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really, it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1972 Civil Rights Symposium

WEDNESDAY, JULY 2: It seemed a distant goal when President John F. Kennedy, in June 1963, encouraged equal treatment of all Americans, but no American could have imagined the events that lay ahead for the country. And, just 13 months later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson would sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, changing American history by signing the Act just a few hours after its House approval. The Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in theaters, restaurants, hotels and other businesses; it banned discrimination in employment; it ended segregation in schools, libraries, swimming pools and other public places. (Read the full text of the Act here.)

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers also were prohibited from judging or discriminating against individuals because of their religion, and were required to accommodate an employee’s religious practice (unless it could be proven that doing so would create undue hardship for the employer). Americans could keep their chosen religion and their job.


Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years earlier, but in 1963, America was a land far from equality for all citizens. In June 1963, a House Resolution was introduced that would outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin—although at the time, it seemed yet a distant goal. The assassination of President Kennedy in November of 1963 made Johnson president, and Johnson urged Congress to “honor President Kennedy’s memory” by allowing passage of the civil rights bill. (Wikipedia has details.) Most experts agree that had Kennedy lived, the Civil Rights Act would never have been passed as early as 1964.

The route to passage was not easy, though, and a “Southern Bloc” staged a filibuster in the U.S. Senate that lasted 54 days, and the nation learned the enormous impact that the bill would have on current Southern culture. Yet with the combined efforts of numerous supporters, the bill was passed. In a nationally televised ceremony, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, in the East Room of the White House. (Read Johnson’s remarks, upon signing the Act, here.)


As is demonstrated in this article and slideshow from Huffington Post, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 spread far beyond America: The idea was inspiring—that those who work for justice will be supported, and bigotry can be overcome.

It is true—as many American leaders point out—that the idea that there would someday be an African-American president was unthinkable in the early 1960s. Nevertheless, in a landmark study in 2013, Pew researchers found that big achievement gaps remain between racial groups in the U.S.

In the OurValues project, Dr. Wayne Baker reported an entire five-part series on that Pew data, raising thought-provoking questions about these gaps. In the first part, Baker looked at the continuing gaps in income. Mid-week in that series, Baker also looked at Pew’s findings of gaps in Americans’ perceptions of fairness, based on race. Later, Baker quoted an address by President Obama on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Obama declared in part:

“And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call—this remains our great unfinished business.”

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)