Contributed by -

Marc H.Morial

President & CEO National Urban League

A more abiding commitment to freedom.

A more constant pursuit of justice. 

A deeper respect for human dignity.

These were the promises of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as expressed by President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the bill into law. 

This year marks the 60th anniversary of that landmark legislation, but the journey toward racial justice in the United States is older than the nation itself, and nowhere near complete. 

No issue in history has met with more resistance in the United States Congress than civil rights. The first Civil Rights Act, which established full citizenship for formerly enslaved Americans, was vetoed twice by President Andrew Jackson. Congress finally overrode the veto with a two-thirds majority in each chamber, allowing the bill that supported the 13th Amendment to become law.

Civil Rights Act of 1875, providing equal access to “accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement,” took five years to pass. It was taken up as a memorial after its author, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, passed away, and only after it was stripped of a provision to desegregate schools. The Act was poorly enforced, and the Supreme Court overturned it in 1883.

For the next eight decades, Congress failed to enact a single measure to enforce civil rights. The next one to pass, a watered-down voting rights bill in 1957, was more notable for Senator Strom Thurmond’s record-setting 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster than for anything it accomplished.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also set a filibuster record, proceeding to a vote only after a 60-day debate.

Resistance to racial justice persisted – and still persists – in the years following 1964, but for the first time in the nation’s history, the federal government at last had the tools to enforce the principles of racial equality and inclusion. 

In the wake of the uprising triggered by George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the nation now finds itself swept into a backlash that presents the gravest threat to the Civil Rights Act in its relatively short history.

The Civil Rights Act has been transformative in changing American life in a material way. Doors have been opened, and new access has been achieved. But the promise of full equality, as this year’s Equality Index indicates, is still elusive.

Our “abiding commitment to freedom” is undermined by discriminatory voter ID laws, gerrymandering, the shuttering of polling places in predominantly minority neighborhoods, limits on early voting, and reckless purging of voter rolls. 

Our “pursuit of justice” is derailed by persistent racism in policing and sentencing, the dismantling of diversity and inclusion policies in employment and education, and lack of access to financial services, housing and healthcare.

Our “respect for human dignity” is called into question by an unraveling social safety net, a poverty-level federal minimum wage, and other economic policies that uplift the wealthy at the expense of working families.

Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a “second emancipation.” The first emancipation freed us from slavery. The second, from legal segregation. Today we must strive for a third emancipation, uprooting the deep racial divisions that remain embedded in our institutions so we can live according to the ideals the Civil Rights Act represents.

Our Partners

Key partners supporting the National Urban League's mission for State of Black America Report

Subscribe our newsletter!

Scroll to Top