54 years ago today the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
About the act
A huge moment for the civil rights movement in the US, the act effectively outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. It meant that racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public accommodations was now illegal. And it also prohibited the unequal application of voter registration requirements.
The act was initially called for by President John F. Kennedy in his Report to the American People on Civil Rights on 11th June 1963.
In this speech he highlighted the need for legislation to give all Americans the right to be served equally in public places, such as hotels, restaurants and shops. He also spoke of the importance of protecting the right to vote.
The speech was given amidst an atmosphere of heightened racial tension, particularly in the southern United States. The same day as the speech was given, the President himself had to step in when the Governor of Alabama prevented two black students from entering the University of Alabama.
And the speech was also given in the aftermath of the Birmingham campaign, something your students can learn more about on a school trip to Atlanta and Alabama.
About Birmingham, Alabama
In the early 1960s, Birmingham was one of the most racially divided cities in the United States. Although 40% of the population was black, there were no black police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, sales clerks or bank tellers. Black secretaries were not allowed to work for white professionals.
Unemployment was two and a half times higher for black residents of Birmingham than white. And when they were employed, black people earnt around half that of white. Jobs for the black population of Birmingham tended to be limited to manual labour in one of the city’s steel mills, or in household service for wealthy white families.
Across Jefferson County, racial segregation of both public and commercial facilities was still a legal requirement. And just 10% of the city’s black population was registered to vote.
However, the white population had little incentive to empathise with the blacks. As the city’s economy began to stagnate, desegregation quite simply meant greater competition in the increasingly difficult jobs market.
When the black populace tried to draw attention to their difficulties, they often experienced a violent backlash. Between 1954 and 1962 there were 50 unsolved, racially motivated bombings in the city. And targets often included local civil rights leaders, such as Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
About the Birmingham Campaign
The Birmingham campaign began in early 1963 as a movement organised by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The aim was to highlight the situation for African Americans in the city, and to begin to effect change.
It was a campaign of nonviolent direct action that led to confrontations between young black students and white civic authorities. It was designed to provoke mass arrests, which it did. And when the jails and holding centres were full, the police began using high-pressure water hoses and dogs on protestors. This received national coverage and did result in a change to the city’s discrimination laws.
Many of the protestors were children and young adults, drafted in from the city’s schools and colleges when the movement ran out of adult volunteers.
The movement’s leaders, including Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King Jr. were criticised from some quarters for encouraging young people to put themselves in harm’s way. But it was the treatment of these young people by the police and civic authorities that drew such attention to the movement.
Although not all bystanders were peaceful, the protestors were, meaning the Birmingham Campaign has since been held up as a model of nonviolent direct action. And it was, ultimately successful, forcing desegregation in the city and paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.