When the Government Stood Up For Civil Rights “All my life I’ve been sick and tired, and now I’m just sick and tired of being sick and tired. No one can honestly say Negroes are satisfied. We’ve only been patient, but how much more patience can we have? ” Mrs. Hamer said these words in 1964, a month and a day before the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. She speaks for the mood of a race, a race that for centuries has built the nation of America, literally, with blood, sweat, and passive acceptance.
She speaks for black Americans who have been second class citizens in their own home too long. She speaks for the race that would be patient no longer that would be accepting no more. Mrs. Hamer speaks for the African Americans who stood up in the 1950’s and refused to sit down. They were the people who led the greatest movement in modern American history – the civil rights movement. It was a movement that would be more than a fragment of history, it was a movement that would become a measure of our lives (Shipler 12).
When Martin Luther King Jr. irred up the conscience of a nation, he gave voice to a long lain dormant morality in America, a voice that the government could no longer ignore. The government finally answered on July 2nd with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is historically significant because it stands as a defining piece of civil rights legislation, being the first time the national government had declared equality for blacks. The civil rights movement was a campaign led by a number of organizations, supported by many individuals, to end discrimination and achieve equality for American Blacks (Mooney 776).
The forefront of the struggle came during the 1950’s and the 1960’s when the feeling of oppression intensified and efforts increased to gain access to public accommodations, increased voting rights, and better educational opportunities (Mooney). Civil rights in America began with the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which ended slavery and freed blacks in theory. The Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 were passed, guaranteeing the rights of blacks in the courts and access to public accommodation.
These were, however, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, who decided that the fourteenth did not protect blacks from violation of civil rights, by individuals. This decision allowed white Southern conservative leadership to make laws and policies regarding blacks that eluded constitutional guarantees. In the face of this blatant discrimination black Americans started to gather and form new organizations to further, and in many cases create civil rights for themselves.
Civil rights leadership was assumed by organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people (NAACP), and the National Urban League (NUL). The NAACP was formally organized in 1910, and for half a century was the foremost civil rights agency, bringing mass amounts of litigation to the courts. In its commitment to the ideals of democracy the NAACP pursued equality for all in the eyes of the government. Around the middle of the century gains were being made in small places, with a few minor changes in state laws.
Yet blacks were still for all conventional purposes second class citizens (Mooney 776). World War II and its homecoming black veterans brought back even more unrest than before. After fighting the Germans and witnessing Hitler’s racial holocaust blacks realized the inequality at home even more. The problem was helped by the migration of black soldiers out West to take advantage of wartime prosperity. The civil rights issue was now gaining a national face. Then the Supreme Court handed down its devastating decision in Plessey vs.
Ferguson (1896), that segregation is constitutional as long as facilities are “separate but equal. ” In the words of the one dissenting justice, “this is the worst decision the court has ever handed down. ” The education provided to blacks proved to be, “manifestly unequal by every yardstick,” and blacks, impeded in education, proved to summer in almost every other area as a result. Meanwhile the government remained silent on this issue, and other issues of discrimination in employment and voting restrictions (Mooney 777).
The wall would eventually have to come down, and Chief Justice Warren and the legendary Warren court personally brought around its destruction. In 1954 the Supreme Court reversed the decision of Plessey vs. Ferguson that had stood for almost forty-two years, in the historic case of Brown vs. Board of Education. The court ruled that facilities were blatantly unequal and such separation was unconstitutional, and furthermore was actually detrimental to both black and white students. The court called for desegregation of schools with “all deliberate speed.
The decision was met with resistance from the South, who formed their, “desegregation never campaigns. ” A group at odds with the Warren court and their radical judgements, the Southern contingent protested, “They put the Negroes in school and now they’ve driven God out” Slowly, with much violence and the use of federal marshals, and on occasion federal troops, segregation was achieved. The South had no choice, Congress had finally entered the scene with the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had delivered a mandate – desegregate the school system or lose all federal funding.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first strong piece of civil rights legislation in almost ninety years. President John F. Kennedy had been elected and called on Congress to bring forth this new legislation, yet by the time of his assignation on November 22nd, 1963, nothing had materialized. Yet Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, has stepped in to keeps the legislative wheels turning. The bill was met with concrete resistance in the Senate, with a Southern group debating endlessly in an attempt to kill the bill, but the pressure of an outraged nation and an intent administration finally broke the stalemate.
Senator Joseph S. Clark speaking of the Senate and its efforts to kill the bill said, “Heedless of its mail, allergic to public opinion polls, apparently unaware of the grave moral issue involved, a minority of this body, day after day, under archaic rules and procedures existing in no other legislative body in the civilized world, prevents a majority of this body to act from acting on this civil rights bill. ” The Civil Rights Act had finally been enacted. The government had at last sided with the movement (Mooney 778).
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed and passed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2nd 1994, after one of the longest running debates in Senate history. It was an idea that started with President Kennedy, and after his assassination the civil rights groups had to face the question of whether legislative strategies would be the same under the new President, but President Johnson saw them through (Watters 119). The comprehensive legislation was the most important law passed in civil rights since the Reconstruction.
It was groundbreaking legislation that aimed to end all forms of discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion or national origin. Title I removes registration requirements and procedural bias, to guarantee equal voting rights. Title II, the main leap forward for civil rights, banns discrimination in places of public accommodation involved in interstate commerce, which according to Martin Luther King Jr. , “is the most humiliating thing a Negro faces” (Watters 118).
Title IV calls for the desegregation of schools – putting into law the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education. Title V expands the duties of the Civil Rights Commission, set up by President Truman after the shame of the treatment of black Military personnel during World War II (Ginsberg 131). Title VII establishes a government agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to enforce the provisions that prohibits discrimination by employers dealing with the federal government or interstate commerce (Ash 797). The Act, despite its many strengths was met with much opposition from many different groups.
Immediately after its passage the act was contested all the way to the Supreme Court in the case of Heart of Atlanta Motel vs. United States (Ginsberg A55). The Heart of Atlanta Motel was a whites only establishment, and the owner argued that his property rights allowed him to choose the people that stayed in his accommodations. The Supreme Court disagreed in a unanimous ruling that his business was based on interstate commerce and to discriminate would hinder part of the national economic system. Other opposition included a backlash of riots among working class blacks, who felt the bill insulted them.
White groups for segregation responded with demonstrations and and increased support of pro-segregation candidates in Congress. Groups rushed to point out the deficiencies in the Act. Title VII, dealing with discrimination in employment, had the problem that the complaining party had to show that deliberate discrimination was the cause of failure to get a job, or position (Ash 801). Women’s groups complained that there was too much emphasis on race discrimination and that there was nothing being done to prevent discrimination based on gender (Ginsburg 143).
Black civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis doubted the effectiveness of the Act. Holding little faith King said, “If it is rigidly enforced it will help a lot, but if it is compromised (and this is a danger) public accommodations will again be the main Southern target” (Watters 118). The opposition subsided in time and now it is easy to forget the struggles that made this act so important. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the concrete action the movement needed to progress on to other key legislation. It was not miracle legislation, and it did not solve all the problems overnight.
But after all is said and done, three centuries of discrimination have created problems that one act of legislation can solve but a minor part of. This Act was the first step, it allowed the Warren court the opportunity to take discrimination farther then it had ever been taken before in the courts, and to strike it down with regulations that would ensure that it would never rise again. It made way in Congress for the comprehensive voting act that was to follow. It gave heart to the fighters, that the government was at a last seeing the new way, the right way.
Revolutionary might be a strong term for the act, an accomplishment that was born in the government system, but it became a powerful tool for liberation (Shipler 12). A lot of tension can be directed at the federal government, and it is responsible for a lot of civil rights grievances, but in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 relief came as the government took responsibility for undoing some of the harm (Watters118). The historical significance on the act can never be denied, just as its effects on race relations in America can never be underestimated.
It was an act whose impacts swept beyond the movement, but increased the civil rights of all Americans. Discrimination is a problem of ethics. Discrimination is unethical. The government has an ethical obligation to make and change laws to ensure that it does not discriminate. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is perhaps the best example there is of the American government fulfilling its ethical obligation (Ash 803). For in the words of Thurgood Marshall, the great civil rights lawyer, and later first black man to serve on the Supreme Court, “Far too long, the doors have been shut to the Negro” (Ginsberg 146).