The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Its Current Implications

(Prepared by Millie Aulbur, Director of Citizenship Education, The Missouri Bar)

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   Historians generally agree that the passage of this legislation along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally brought to fruition the promises embodied in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.


Students will be able to:

  1. Describe the essential components of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  2. Explain the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for African-Americans.
  3. Explain the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on gender equality.
  4. Discuss current issues impacted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


After the Civil War, three amendments were added to the Constitution to address racial discrimination:  the 13th Amendment banned slavery, the 14th Amendment defined citizenship and equal protection of the laws, and the 15th Amendment provided that no man could be denied the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”   The United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to implement the provisions of these amendments.  The 1875 Act banned racial discrimination not only in state and national governments, but also in public accommodations—hotels, restaurants, theaters, etc.  But the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1883 that Congress did not have the authority to make laws about discrimination in private places.  (There were five separate cases that were consolidated in one case called The Civil Rights Cases.)

With the 1875 Civil Rights Act seriously gutted by the court, Jim Crow laws took hold in many states, especially the former Confederate States.  Whites Only signs appeared in places like theaters, restaurants and hotels.  Public schools and public transportation segregated African-Americans.  Segregation was challenged in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), but the Supreme Court held that “separate but equal” was constitutional.

Inroads for civil rights for African-Americans were made in various aspects of American life in the early and middle years of the 20th century:

  • 1938—In a case involving the University of Missouri, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada305 U.S. 337, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the University of Missouri School of Law, as the only public law school in Missouri, could not deny Lloyd Gaines admission to the law school and that providing him with tuition to an out-of-state school was not a “separate but equal” solution.  This was the first case to start chipping away at the Plessy decision.  (In 1950, the Court struck down “separate but equal” law school situations in two cases–Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents339 U.S. 637.)
  • 1948—In a case that came from St. Louis, Missouri, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948) that courts could not enforce racial covenants on real estate.  In other words, restrictions on real estate could not include racial discrimination.
  • 1948—President Harry S Truman, the only president from Missouri, issued Executive Order 9981 calling for the desegregation of the U.S. military.
  • 1954–Arguably, the most famous civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, is decided.  The Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.  Many constitutional scholars feel that the Brown case gave the Civil Rights Movement momentum by finding that segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • 1956—After months of Civil Rights activists boycotting buses in various Alabama cities, Alabama’s laws calling for segregated buses were struck down by the Court in Browder v. Gayle, 352 U.S. 903.
  • 1960—The federal government began looking into how African-Americans were being kept from voting.
  • 1963—The Supreme Court in six different cases overturned the convictions of people who had been found guilty of trespassing for holding sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.

Despite these victories, Civil Rights leaders were frustrated with the slow pace of change. The early elation in the aftermath of the Brown decision gave way to frustration.  Ten years after the decision, less than 2% of the nation’s segregated schools were desegregated.  Institutionalized segregation was still part of education, housing and employment, and there were still plenty of “Whites Only” signs in hotels, restaurants and theaters.

But the Civil Rights movement was starting to get some serious attention from all Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Americans were getting to know Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message of bringing about change peacefully.  They were seeing nightly newscasts from the South about peaceful demonstrations and marches, lunch counter sit-ins, bus boycotts, and voter registration drives aided by Freedom Riders from the North.  They were shocked at the violence used against the people taking part in these peaceful events.

In 1963,  Civil Rights leaders and, to some extent the American public, began to put pressure on President John F. Kennedy and Congress to pass some kind of comprehensive, meaningful civil rights legislation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

President Kennedy was assassinated before any of his proposed legislation was passed. However, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson took on the task of getting a civil rights bill passed.  Many historians feel that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s superb political skills ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Congress.  (One of the more interesting stories about the days leading up to the passage of the law is that allegedly a Congressman from the South added outlawing gender discrimination to the bill thinking that his fellow lawmakers would be less likely to vote for the law!)

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  President Johnson considered its passage and that of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the highlights of his presidency.  The Act’s scope and depth, and additions made to it in subsequent years, truly brought about a comprehensive, meaningful change in the civil rights of not only African-Americans but other groups, too.

Some of the components of the Act and its additions are:

  1. Title 1 of the Act is about racial discrimination in voting. (The Voting Rights Act of 1965 will be one of the subjects addressed for Constitution Day 2015.)
  2. Title II was the most controversial part of the Act. It bans racial discrimination in privately owned public accommodations, such as hotels, theaters, restaurants, ball stadiums, etc.  The Supreme Court struck down this section of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 on the grounds that government cannot tell private owners what to do.  Congress could not rely on the Fourteenth Amendment because it only prohibits governments and other public entities like schools from discrimination.  Instead, Congress relied on the power enumerated in Article I, Section 8, Clause 3–The United States Congress shall have power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”  This is usually referred to as the Commerce Clause and allows Congress not only to regulate commerce between the U.S. and other nations, but also between the states.In the landmark cases of Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. United States379 U.S. 241 (1964) and Katzenbach v. McClung379 U.S. 294 (1964), the United States Supreme Court held that the U.S. Congress could use the power granted to it by the Constitution‘s Commerce Clause to force private businesses to abide by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The reasoning was that any business that held itself out as accommodating the public was open for business from people from any state and, therefore, the business was engaged in interstate commerce.  Thus, Congress could regulate the business.
  3. Other parts of the Act banned discrimination in public facilities, in public education in employment, and in publicly financed programs.
  4. Title VII bans racial and gender discrimination in employment. Other additions to Title VII were the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  5. Title IX was added in 1972 and addresses gender discrimination. The original bill did not specifically mention athletics, but Title IX is best known for its impact on high school and collegiate athletics.  High schools, colleges and universities had to have as many athletic opportunities for women as they did for men.

Teaching about the Civil Rights Act of 1964

  1. For excellent background materials, including primary documents, there are many resources.  The Insights on Law publication from the American Bar Association is particularly outstanding and includes a lot of activities.
  2. President Lyndon Johnson is linked inextricably with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  His presidential library in Austin has incredible resources and among them are:
  3. The Center on Congress at Indiana University ( has created an exceptionally well-done interactive, FREE app on the events of 1963 and 1964 that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Some of the Freedom Summer app features are:
    • Actual footage and photographs of the events and the people involved in the events.
    • Visually appealing and interesting portrayal of the historic background of the events of 1963 and 1964.
    • The biographies of twenty people from this era, including Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and various key Congressmen.
  4. For the current status of civil rights, go to:
  5. Show students the movie about Jackie Robinson, 42.  This movie dramatically and realistically depicts the insidiousness of the Jim Crow laws and the extreme difficulties of integrating major league baseball.
  6. Discuss how busing students was used to desegregate the schools.  What were the advantages and disadvantages of this practice?
  7. Discuss Title IX and high school and collegiate sports.  How did it impact athletics at these levels?
  8. What is Affirmative Action and what does it have to do with the Civil Rights Act of 1964?  For an excellent resource, see
  9. Two U.S. Representatives have proposed making “the right organize a labor union” a fundamental right and part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   Do you agree with this proposal?  Why or why not?  How is organizing a labor union the same or different from discrimination based on race, gender, age or disability?


  1. Some states have passed laws or amended their constitutions that allow business owners to turn down doing business with same-sex couples. Do you think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to these cases?  Why or why not?
  2. The 14th Amendment has often been called the Great Amendment. Why?  How was it important in the Civil Rights Cases?
  3. What are the arguments for and against Affirmative Action?
  4. What other groups currently are seeking to be protected by the Equal Protection Clause?
  5. Do you think the immigration crisis is related to civil rights? Why or why not?
  6. Read about the three law school cases mentioned in the lesson plan—GainesSweatt and McLaurin. What attempts did the three universities make to provide “separate but equal” facilities for African-Americans.  Why did the Court strike down these practices?

Alignment with Missouri’s Social Studies Standards

ObjectivesShow Me Knowledge/ContentPerformance ProcessCourse level expectations/depth of knowledge
Describe the essential components of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.Social Studies 1 Principles expressed in the documents shaping democracy in the U.S.1.2 Conduct research to answer questions and evaluate information and ideas.1-A 2
Explain the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for African-Americans.Social Studies 3 Principles and processes of governance systems.1.2 Conduct research to answer questions and evaluate information and ideas.2-C 2
Explain the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on gender equality.Social Studies 1 Principles expressed in the documents shaping democracy in the U.S.1.2 Conduct research to answer questions and evaluate information and ideas.1-A/7-E 2
Discuss current issues impacted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.Social Studies 1 Principles expressed in the documents shaping democracy in the U.S.
3.6 Examine problems and proposed solutions from multiple perspectives.1-A/B 2