By Published: July 2, 2024

CU Boulder scholar Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders reflects on what has and hasn’t changed since 1964

Over a five-year span between 1865 and 1870, following the end of the Civil War, three constitutional amendments were ratified to end slavery (the 13th), make formerly enslaved people U.S. citizens (the 14th) and give all men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (the 15th).

In the decades that followed, however, and despite provision that “the Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation,” various states and municipalities passed “Jim Crow” laws, abused poll taxes and literacy tests to limit voting and condoned racially motivated violence to enforce segregation and disenfranchise African Americans.

But on July 2, 1964, in the midst of a civil rights movement that had been growing in voice and numbers for many years, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) into law. This act integrated public schools and facilities; prohibited discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin in public places and in hiring and employment; and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a CU Boulder assistant professor of African American and U.S. history, notes that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "shows what a major legislative change can accomplish, but beyond that, what else happens? The activism continues.”

Sixty years later, the Civil Rights Act is still considered a landmark of U.S. legislation, but does it mean today what it did in 1964?    

“Similar to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the CRA is something we almost take for granted as something that has existed for a good chunk of most people’s lifetimes,” says Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, an assistant professor of African American and U.S. history in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of History. “Everything from Brown v. Board on—the Montgomery bus boycott, sit-ins, all these things were leading to this Civil Rights Act.

“I think for civil rights activists, though, it’s a complicated story. A lot of the actual issues that lead to material conditions being different for Black people still have not changed enough. We haven’t closed the racial wealth gap, there’s still structural racism in policing, housing and employment. As violent as the moments at lunch counter sit-ins were, in a way the harder thing is saying, ‘Black people should be able to live in this neighborhood’ or ‘Black and white kids should be going to the same schools’ or ‘Black people are experiencing discrimination at these jobs and people in positions of power are keeping them away.’ People now are being told it’s either unfixable or it’s not a problem, and this is where we’re at 60 years later.”

Protecting civil rights

For almost 100 years following the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and despite three constitutional amendments that ostensibly ensured equal rights and legal protections for African Americans, most experienced anything but—and not just in the South, but throughout the United States. In Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court even ruled that segregation didn’t violate the 14th Amendment.

So, it wasn’t just a culmination of big events that occasionally garnered media attention—Ku Klux Klan marches, the Tulsa and Rosewood massacres, the murder of Emmett Till—but the daily experiences of “redlined” neighborhoods, “sundown” towns, denial of employment, wage inequity, separate entrances and a hundred other inequalities and injustices that germinated the civil rights movement.

Residents of Montgomery, Alabama, walking during bus boycott

Residents of Montgomery, Alabama, walk to work during the 381-day bus boycott that began in December 1955. (Photo: Don Cravens/LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

“One of the things I always show my students about the March on Washington is what people were actually asking for, and that the desire for jobs and equal employment were such a huge part of why the march occurred,” Lawrence-Sanders explains. “We get caught up in MLK’s famous speech about integration, but one of the demands of the march was an end to police brutality and police violence, which is something they wanted in the Civil Rights Act that didn’t make it in there.”

As the civil rights movement increasingly gained footing and voice, federal officials were increasingly called on to respond. In the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Congress established the civil rights division of the Department of Justice as well as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights “to provide means of further securing and protecting the civil rights of persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.”

When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he initially postponed supporting anti-discrimination measures, but soon couldn’t ignore the state-sanctioned violence being perpetrated against civil rights activists and protesters throughout the country. In June 1963, Kennedy proposed broad civil rights legislation, noting in his announcement that “this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson continued pursuing civil rights legislation. After a 75-day filibuster, the Senate voted 73-27 in favor of the bill and Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law July 2.

‘The activism continues’

“Now we tend to forget that this was not the end of the movement,” Lawrence-Sanders says. “A lot of further legislation followed. We were still seeing violent desegregation and busing well into the ‘70s.”

MLK at the March on Washington

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Aug. 28, 1963. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Housing discrimination, addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, was another big issue—and remains one today, Lawrence-Sanders says. “We still deal with housing segregation and discrimination, and it’s often treated as the exception instead of structural racism, which has become a boogeyman term. The act in ‘68 had provisions about how renting and selling and financing a house can’t be discriminatory based on race or sex, and people violate that constantly. There was an article in The New York Times last month about a woman trying to buy a condo and the seller backed out because she’s Black.

“The frustrating thing about this is that Black people have always suspected that these incidences of racism happen and been called crazy or paranoid, and when these articles appear, Black folks are saying, ‘No, we’ve proven it, not just with the knowledge of how we’ve been treated over time, but it’s finally been exposed by data.’ When I was living in New York City, there were undercover investigations that discovered that taxis don’t stop for Black people, rental apartments don’t rent to Black people at same rate as white people, real estate agents are steering Black people to certain places and steering white people away.”

An important legacy of the CRA is that it established enforcement mechanisms for addressing discrimination, but it stopped short of addressing all the ways structural racism exists in society, Lawrence-Sanders says. It also often gets caught in selective historical memory.

“I think that’s why people tend freeze Martin Luther King in 1963 and the March on Washington,” she says. “Because after the CRA passed, activists were asking for things that went too far for the government. Collectively, we tend to have no use for activists when they demand more and say, ‘That wasn’t enough, we want more, we want to go further.’ The CRA shows what a major legislative change can accomplish, but beyond that, what else happens? The activism continues.”

Top image: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. (Photo: Cecil Stoughton/Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum)

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