Half a century ago today, with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at his side, President Lyndon B. Johnson forged a new path for America by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The bill was crafted in response to a central question that pervaded 1960s social and political dialogue: Should race and gender-based discrimination be prohibited under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which forbids states from denying any citizen “life, liberty or property, without due process of law,” or “the equal protection of the laws.”
LBJ’s Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race or gender in all hiring, firing, and promoting by their employers. The bill also gave federal government the authority to desegregate racial divided public spaces and pushed forward the effort to desegregate schools. It’s credited with speeding the eventual demise of America’s Jim Crow segregation system, commonly viewed as beginning in 1883 when the Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited discrimination in trains, hotels, and other public locations, was not permitted by the 13th or 14th Amendments and unconstitutional. LBJ’s bill was the first since to forbid discrimination in the workplace and public places.
The final 1964 civil rights bill declared it unlawful to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges or employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
The bill also declared that gender should be an allowed consideration if it were a bona fide qualifier for an employment opportunity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was designated as the arbiter of the law.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was one of a handful to receive a pen during the live televised signing. Kennedy took home six, some for political figures – reportedly with a couple of extra in tow for members of his family.