July 2, 1964 – Civil Rights Act of 1964 Signed Into Law

On this day in history, President Lyndon Johnson, using 72 ceremonial pens, signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-352). In spite of the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, individual states continued to allow unfair treatment of minorities and passed Jim Crow laws allowing segregation of public facilities. The 1964 Act outlawed any discrimination in public facilities on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.

President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964

Passage of the act was extremely difficult, on account of the opposition of Southern senators, who staged a 75-day filibuster – among the longest in U.S. history. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro tells the story of how it got accomplished in fascinating detail. It is unfortunate that Johnson is remembered more for the tragedy of Vietnam than the triumph of pushing this important bill through Congress.

The 1964 Act did not end discrimination, and almost immediately, the new civil rights law came under legal challenge. The court cases mostly had the effect, however, of solidifying civil rights. In one case, the owner of an Atlanta motel, “The Heart of Atlanta,” argued that Congress, in passing this act, exceeded its power to regulate commerce; that the act violated the Fifth Amendment because the appellant was deprived of the right to choose its customers and operate its business as it wishes, resulting in a taking of its liberty and property without due process of law and a taking of its property without just compensation; and, finally, in a supremely ironic touch, the appellant argued that by requiring appellant to rent available rooms to Negroes against its will, Congress was subjecting it to “involuntary servitude” in contravention of the Thirteenth Amendment. Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. United States (379 U.S. 241), decided on December 14, 1964, was a landmark case holding that the U.S. Congress could use the power granted to it by the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to force businesses, even if “of a purely ‘local’ character,” to abide by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Other relevant cases included Katzenbach v. McClung (379 U.S. 294, 1964) upholding the right of the federal government to mandate desegregation in restaurants; and Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (401 U.S. 424, 1970), in which a unanimous Court held that when an employment practice operates to exclude African-Americans or other racial minorities, that practice is prohibited unless the employer can show that it fulfills a genuine business need and is a valid measure of an applicant’s ability to learn or perform the job in question.

In Washington v. Davis (26 U.S. 229, 1976), however, the Court ruled against the African-American plaintiffs who had been rejected for positions in the D.C. Police Department. The plaintiffs alleged that the Department’s recruiting procedures, including a written personnel test, discriminated against racial minorities, claiming that the test was unrelated to job performance and excluded a disproportionate number of black applicants. The Court found that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to prevent official discrimination on the basis of race; laws or other official acts that had racially disproportionate impacts did not automatically become constitutional violations. The Court stated: “Racial discrimination by state must contain two elements: a racially disproportionate impact and discriminatory motivation on the part of the state actor.”

Justice William J. Brennan, joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissented. Although the Court stated that a showing of discriminatory intent was necessary to make out a claim under the Constitution, it did ot clarify what sort of showing might pass the test. As Justice Brennan pointed out in his dissenting opinion, discriminatory purpose cannot always be distinguished from discriminatory impact.

President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964

President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964


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