Contributed by -

Melanie Campbell

President & CEO National Coalition on Black Civic Participation

(What the Civil Rights Act of 1964 meant for American life as we know it today and why warding off attacks is critical 

for our future. And, an exploration of what should be included in a new Civil Rights law to guarantee and expand protections for the 21st century)

Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was described by Martin Luther King, Jr. to be nothing less than a “Second Emancipation.”  1

Under this landmark legislation, segregation based on race, religion, or national origin was banned at all places of public accommodation, including courthouses, parks, restaurants, sports events, and hotels. No longer could Black people and other minorities be denied service simply based on the color of their skin?2

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barred race, religious, national origin, and gender discrimination by employers and labor unions and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with the power to file lawsuits on behalf of workers who have felt that they have been discriminated against in any way.3

Additionally, the Act forbade the use of federal funds for any discriminatory program; it authorized the Department of Education to assist with school desegregation; it gave extra power to the Commission on Civil Rights; and it prohibited the unequal application of voting requirements.4

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also paved the way for two major follow-up laws: The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited literacy tests and other discriminatory voting practices, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of property.5

No longer, in theory, were African Americans to be subjected to the harsh restrictions of racist Jim Crow laws and the ignorant political whims of Southern and Northern segregationists. 

Thanks to the Civil Rights Act, African American youth were allowed to pursue the same quality education as their white counterparts. In turn, they were entitled to secure the jobs and careers that would allow them to enjoy many of the benefits associated with the “American Dream,” including home ownership and the opportunity to enjoy the financial success of entrepreneurship.

In addition, for the most part, Black citizens have been allowed to engage actively in the core of America’s political process: VOTING. As a direct result, Black people have had the opportunity to elect Black men and women, or those with their best interests at heart, to the positions of city council, mayor, state representative, governor, Congressional representative, Vice President, and even President.     

Indeed, without question, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has had a profound impact on the lives of each and every Black man, woman, and child in this nation. Unfortunately, there are also those forces within America today working tirelessly, night and day, to reverse the rights and freedoms established by this historic Act.

In some cases, these despicable forces have had the utmost audacity to use “race” as the pretext to roll back the very rights and freedoms set forth in the Act for Black people. Such was the case when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard in which Court that “race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions processes violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” 6 This “reverse discrimination” ruling stymies and restricts the affirmative action efforts by many major universities in America with regard their admission programs that have provided disadvantaged Black students the opportunity to attend the nation’s elite schools. This is an intentional effort to “move the clock back” to the Jim Crow era of “unequal opportunities” in higher education for Blacks.

Following the lead set forth by that particular Supreme Court decision, we now have seen numerous corporations setting out to dismantle and eliminate their respective Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) efforts. Thus providing another barrier for Black professionals, women in particular, with regard to accessing corporate C-Suite opportunities. No doubt, corporate affirmative action programs will soon be the next Supreme Court target.

Even more dangerous to the “rights and freedoms” of Black women in particular was the Supreme Court’s decision in 2022 to overturn Roe v. Wade, seven negatively impacting Black child and maternal health in America. 

Since that time, more than 40 states have followed suit by eliminating or severely restricting the right to an abortion. With these restrictions also come the limitations on the rights of Black women to receive safe and appropriate pre-and post-natal care. Statistics have shown that deaths among Black women are sure to climb due to birth-related complications.8

Finally, another glaring example of the “Back Landscape” with regard to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the blatant effort to dilute, marginalize, and restrict the Black vote in such states as Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Ohio through redistricting, realignment, gerrymandering and even the outright purging of voter rolls. Plainly, some do not want us to vote and have any say in our democracy.

Given these and the many other attacks on the rights and freedoms granted to Black citizens through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the question is, what can we do?  

The Act from 1964 is not broken; it may need to be updated and improved. And given the extremely fractionalized, highly partisan, and toxic nature of the nation’s current Congress, realistically, the very introduction of any NEW Civil Rights Act would be an exercise in futility and doomed to failure.  

However, what we CAN do, in an attempt to protect our rights and freedoms, is demand/encourage the Biden/Harris Administration to aggressively strengthen and enhance the guardrail and enforcement entities such as EEOC, the Civil Rights Commission, etc., that were already put in place by the original Act of 1964. As it has done for so many other initiatives that have been positive for the Black community, the Administration should issue Executive Orders that give these commissions more enforcement powers and authority.

With regard to the attack on our voting rights, the Administration must continue to use its bully pit and advocate for the passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act to strengthen the enforcement powers of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In short, just like a well-built house, after 60 years, the old Act is fine; it just needs to be upgraded and improved, with its foundations strengthened.

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