The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. It was one of the signature achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, which had been fighting for equal rights and protection since at least the end of the Civil War. [1] Two previous civil rights bills had established the Civil Rights Commission (1957) and federal inspections of local voter registration polls (1960), but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 went well beyond those to provide comprehensive protections against discrimination. The measure was an Act:

To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes. [2]

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a monumental achievement for civil rights activists including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the culmination of years of activism and specifically the Birmingham Campaign, which took place in the Spring of 1963. [3] Coming off other failures, civil rights activists determined that national legislation was necessary to address the systematic discrimination—known colloquially as ‘Jim Crow’ segregation—that they were subject to across the South. As such they chose the greatest embodiment of that oppression, Birmingham, Alabama, to take a stand. [4] Although most southern cities had resisted the ruling of Brown v. Board (1954), Alabama, and Birmingham in particular, vehemently resisted any change. Run by segregationists in a state governed by arch‐​segregationist George Wallace, the city had seen over twenty bombings go unsolved over the previous seven years. In short, it was “a stronghold of racial oppression and intimidation.” [5]

The goal of the Birmingham protest was to convince President John F. Kennedy to embrace federal civil rights legislation, a difficult task. After all, Kennedy had secured the presidency with the support of key southern states including Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Without southern support, Kennedy’s reelection prospects for 1964 looked dubious. Kennedy was aware of the suffering of black Americans, especially those in the South, and he was also concerned about intelligence briefs which demonstrated that segregation was providing the Soviets with valuable propaganda to use across the Global South in the Cold War. [6]

Project C, as the Birmingham Campaign was known, began with peaceful sit‐​ins, boycotts, and marches. In early April, the activists issued the Birmingham Manifesto [7] and King was arrested during the Good Friday march. [8] It was here that King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” defending the breaking of laws as a means to bring about justice. King argued that:

A just law is a man‐​made code that squares with moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. [9]

As eloquent, powerful, and moving as King’s letter was, it was actually in his absence that other civil rights activists realized that their most powerful weapon against segregation was their children. King himself was hesitant to use children in direct action protests, but the use of children marchers proved extremely effective at garnering public sympathy.

On May 2, 1963, around one thousand students walked out of class. As they walked two‐​by‐​two out of the 16th Street Baptist Church they were arrested in the hundreds. They quickly filled the jails to capacity. When black students marched again the following day, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor decided that he needed to find a way to break up the demonstrations without arresting the protestors. His solution was to unleash terror, turning high‐​pressure hoses and police dogs on the children. These brutal tactics did little to deter civil rights activists, but they were captured in photographs taken by national reporters. These “dramatic photographs” printed “in newspapers throughout the country captured the nation’s attention, focusing concern on the need for civil rights reform.” Furthermore, “news coverage throughout the world underscored international concerns about racial injustice in America.” [10]

Kennedy himself was moved by the images, [11] which were printed in Time; a little over a month later, he delivered an “impassioned plea for civil rights reform before a nationwide television audience.” Although he had been hesitant to embrace the cause of civil rights, Kennedy insisted that “[t]he heart of the question” was “whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” Kennedy continued that “this Nation…will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” Recognizing the hypocrisy of espousing freedom abroad while denying freedom to African Americans, Kennedy framed the issue in terms of the Cold War:

We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second‐​class citizens except for Negroes; that we have no class or cast [sic] system, no ghettos, no master race except with respect to Negroes? [12]

President Kennedy did not live to see the Civil Rights Act passed into law. He was assassinated while in Texas shoring up Democratic support in the state following his unpopular request for civil rights legislation. As such, it fell to Kennedy’s Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, to see the Civil Rights Act passed into law.

Not everyone was supportive of the legislation. Southern politicians opposed the measure, as did some notable conservative politicians from outside the South. Libertarian‐​conservative Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) who was running for president voted against the measure. Although Goldwater had voted for both the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960, he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goldwater explained his opposition in June of 1963. He began by emphasizing that he was “unalterably opposed to discrimination or segregation on basis of race, color or creed, or on any other basis.” He added that both his “words” and “more importantly my actions through the years have repeatedly demonstrated the sincerity of my feeling in this regard.” He insisted that he had once had “high hopes for this current legislation,” but ultimately determined he could not support it because of the provisions in Title II and Title VII of the bill. [13] Goldwater described his opposition to these measures as such:

I find no constitutional basis for the exercise of Federal regulatory authority in either of these areas; and I believe the attempted usurpation of such power to be a grave threat to the very essence of our basic system of government, namely, that of a constitutional republic in which 50 sovereign states have reserved to themselves and to the people those powers not specifically granted to the central or Federal Government.

Goldwater also warned about the potential danger of granting the federal government such expansive regulatory and enforcement powers:

My basic objection to this measure is, therefore, constitutional. But in addition, I would like to point out to my colleagues in the Senate and to the people of America, regardless of their race, color or creed, the implications involved in the enforcement of regulatory legislation of this sort. To give genuine effect to the prohibitions of this bill will require the creation of a Federal police force of mammoth proportions.

Goldwater concluded:

I repeat again: I am unalterably opposed to discrimination of any sort and I believe that though the problem is fundamentally one of the heart, some law can help—but not law that embodies features like these, provisions which fly in the face of the Constitution and which require for their effective execution the creation of a police state. And so, because I am unalterably opposed to any threats to our great system of government and loss of our God‐​given liberties, I shall vote “no” on this bill. [14]

Another prominent proponent of limited government and individual rights, Ronald Reagan, also opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When running for Governor of California two years after the law passed, he explained his opposition. In a statement, Reagan asserted:

I believe it was not as well written as it could have been. But I’ve been, heart and soul all my life, active in promoting the goals of that act. I regret the great bitterness that exists. I have repeatedly said that where the constitutional rights of citizens are violated for any reason, it is the responsibility of government, at bayonet point if necessary to enforce those rights. [15]

Reagan explained that while he would not patronize a business that racially discriminated, he did not believe that it was the federal government’s responsibility (per the Constitution) to force businesses to serve any group of people.

Both Goldwater and Reagan’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act raise difficult questions for libertarians. After all, their justifications for opposing the measure are very similar to libertarian and classical liberal objections to federal intervention today. And yet, most historians believe that the Civil Rights Act was essential to ending Jim Crow segregation and ensuring that African American civil rights were protected across the South.

Could the same results have been achieved by federal legislation or court decisions simply striking down the local and state laws that were the backbone of Jim Crow? If so, then perhaps we could have eliminated state sanctioned racial discrimination without violating property owners’ right of association. Or perhaps that is simply a pipe dream and federal intervention was necessary as a check on state abuses.

Conversely, there is also a powerfully libertarian aspect of the activism that brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Regardless of how libertarians feel about the federal legislation, they should praise the nonviolent direct action of the activists of the civil rights movement. These activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., recognized that justice does not follow from law. They had the courage to stand against those in power and demand legal equality. That is their legacy: courage in the face of state oppression and racial discrimination. They demanded their constitutional rights and, after much struggle, won despite facing massive resistance from white supremacists.

Although the Civil Rights Act addressed much of the injustice that African Americans had been forced to endure, it did not make up for the inequalities that slavery and Jim Crow had imposed on black Americans. Today, Americans—both black and white—continue to grapple with the consequences of past injustice. Even if de jure segregation is prohibited because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, de facto segregation has actually worsened in many communities across America, a reminder that the legacy of the Birmingham protests should continue to inspire activism against a myriad of social and governmental failures.

[1] For a comprehensive exploration of the quest of African American civil rights see Peter Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the First Great Migration (New York: Belknap Press, 2005).

[2] “Transcript of Civil Rights Act (1964) Accessed at https://​www​.our​doc​u​ments​.gov/​d​o​c​.​p​h​p​?​f​l​a​s​h​=​t​r​u​e​&​d​o​c​=​9​7​&​p​a​g​e​=​t​r​a​n​s​cript

[3] http://​www​.pbs​.org/​b​l​a​c​k​-​c​u​l​t​u​r​e​/​e​x​p​l​o​r​e​/​c​i​v​i​l​-​r​i​g​h​t​s​-​m​o​v​e​m​e​n​t​-​b​i​r​m​i​n​g​h​a​m​-​c​a​m​p​aign/

[4] For a comprehensive history of the importance of Birmingham see Glenn T. Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

[5] For more on Project C, including some excellent firsthand accounts and video footage see https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​h​C​x​E​6​i​_SzoQ

[6] For more on how Kennedy’s views were affected by Cold War concerns see Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) 152–202.

[7] “Birmingham Manifesto” April 3, 1963. Accessed at https://​www​.crmvet​.org/​d​o​c​s​/​b​h​a​m​m​a​n​f.htm

[8] https://​www​.civil​right​steach​ing​.org/​1​9​6​3​/​c​h​i​l​d​r​e​n​s​-​c​r​usade

[9] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963. Accessed at https://​web​.cn​.edu/​k​w​h​e​e​l​e​r​/​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​L​e​t​t​e​r​_​B​i​r​m​i​n​g​h​a​m​_​J​a​i​l.pdf

[10] Dudziak, 169.

[11] The images out of Birmingham are moving. Here is a link to the images: http://​100pho​tos​.time​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​c​h​a​r​l​e​s​-​m​o​o​r​e​-​b​i​r​m​i​n​g​h​a​m​-​a​l​abama

[12] As quoted in Dudziak, 179–180.

[13] “Transcript of Civil Rights Act (1964) Accessed at https://​www​.our​doc​u​ments​.gov/​d​o​c​.​p​h​p​?​f​l​a​s​h​=​t​r​u​e​&​d​o​c​=​9​7​&​p​a​g​e​=​t​r​a​n​s​cript

[14] “Text of Goldwater Speech on Rights,” New York Times, June 19, 1964. Accessed at https://​www​.nytimes​.com/​1​9​6​4​/​0​6​/​1​9​/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​s​/​t​e​x​t​-​o​f​-​g​o​l​d​w​a​t​e​r​-​s​p​e​e​c​h​-​o​n​-​r​i​g​h​t​s​.html

[15] As quoted in H.W. Brands, Reagan: The Life (New York: Doubleday, 2015), 150.

Marcus Witcher
Originally published
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