Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed after decades of legal and grassroots advocacy, is viewed as a landmark in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. The intent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to enforce the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, to ensure the constitutional right to vote, and to prohibit racial segregation in public accommodations and educational institutions. In addition to prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, the act also makes it illegal to segregate on the basis of color, religion, and national origin. Further, the law makes it illegal for private employers to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. According to most commentators, the prohibition against sex discrimination was added to the bill at the last moment as a ploy by some lawmakers to ensure that the bill would not pass Congress. The strategy backfired, and sex discrimination was included, albeit with very little legislative history explaining the intent of Congress. This entry looks at the historical background of civil rights, the contents of the act, and its enforcement.

Historical Background

The civil rights movement advocated an end to the “separate but equal” doctrine enunciated in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a dogma that legally upheld racial segregation in schools, public accommodations, and even cemeteries. The movement also fought for an end to literacy tests, examinations given at voting booths that were designed to keep African Americans and others from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Literacy tests went well beyond proving that voters could read or write. The tests asked increasingly difficult and arcane questions about the voting process, such as what time of day is a senator sworn into office; these challenges were designed to ensure that Blacks in the South and Hispanics in the Southwest would not be able to vote.

The civil rights movement utilized the legal system in an attempt to end segregation, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court case that repudiated Plessy’s notion of “separate but equal” as it applied to public education in ruling that educational facilities must not be segregated by race. Yet, 10 years after Brown, only 1% of students in the South attended integrated schools. Thus, the movement also engaged in grassroots organizing and civil disobedience to gain national attention.

Civil rights are legal claims for protection that individuals are entitled to make on the government. Civil rights include those rights that emanate from the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

What the Law Says

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the most comprehensive civil rights statute in the United States. The act is composed of 11 separate titles. In the education context, the four most important titles cover voting rights (Title I), desegregation in public schools (Title IV), nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs (Title VI), and equal employment opportunity (Title VII).

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870 after the Civil War, prohibits denial of the right to vote on account of race. Yet, by 1880, the voting rights of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics had been rescinded by so-called Jim Crow laws. Poll taxes and literacy tests kept poor Whites and Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics from voting in the United States. In 1962, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment was ratified, outlawing poll taxes. In 1964, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, in which Title I provided for federal enforcement of the right to vote. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, making it illegal to intimidate voters and providing for the federal government to register voters in the southern states. Title I and the Voting Rights Act apply to state and county school board elections and ensure the right to vote regardless of race, color, or national origin.

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act requires public schools to desegregate and not take into account a student’s race, color, religion, or national origin in making school assignments. Public schools that fall under the purview of the act include elementary and secondary schools as well as public colleges and institutions of higher education. Title IV is an example of Congress passing a law that in many ways enforces a Supreme Court opinion, in this instance, Brown. Although Brown required public schools to desegregate, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the regulations that implement Title IV provide an enforcement mechanism for the Department of Education to use to investigate schools and postsecondary institutions to determine if they are integrated.

Title VI covers all programs, including schools and colleges, that receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education. Title VI prohibits the exclusion of any participant on the basis of his or her race, color, or national origin. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education is responsible for enforcing nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provides equal employment opportunity. The law prohibits discrimination in hiring, firing, referral, and promotion on the basis of the worker’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for investigating complaints of employment discrimination and enforcing the law. In addition to the federal prohibitions against employment discrimination, states have antidiscrimination laws. The EEOC and state agencies have time limits for filing a charge and in some cases will work together to investigate cases.

Enforcement Issues

The Civil Rights Act established a number of federal agencies to enforce the antidiscrimination laws, including the OCR and the EEOC. If individuals believe that they have been discriminated against in employment, there is a process to file discrimination charges with the EEOC. Often, EEOC officials contact employers, conduct investigations, and, in many instances, settle disputes. OCR employs a similar process. That is, individuals who believe that educational institutions have discriminated against them on the basis of race or sex, for example, can write letters to the OCR. OCR officials generally contact institutions and in, some cases, conduct investigations.

Most discrimination cases, whether in employment or education, settle prior to going to court. If cases do not settle, officials at the appropriate agencies decide whether to file suit. If agency officials decline to file judicial complaints, they may provide the individuals with right-to-sue letters that grant them limited periods of time during which to file complaints in court.

Over the years, courts have interpreted sections of the Civil Rights Act as providing private rights of action to remedy discrimination. Private rights of action allow persons who have been harmed by discriminatory practices to file suits, even if the appropriate federal agencies decline to do so. Often referred to as a private attorney general, the right of individuals to file suits recognizes that government agencies may lack the resources to initiate litigation for each and every valid claim of discrimination. In such cases, individuals may act like private attorneys general by filing their own suits.

In the employment context, individuals have private rights of action. In other words, if the EEOC decides not to file a case against an employer under Title VII, the worker is provided with a right-to-sue letter allowing a private suit against the employer. The courts have recognized a private right of action under Title VII to file cases of intentional discrimination (if, for example, the purpose of a hiring policy is discriminatory) and disparate impact discrimination complaints (if a policy is neutral but has the effect of harming a racial group) in court. Put another way, if the EEOC does not file a case, the individual has a right to go to court.

The rules for cases under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act are different from those filed under Title VII or by the EEOC. If the OCR does not file a case, individuals may file intentional discrimination claims in court against federally funded programs. However, individuals may not file Title VI disparate impact cases in court. This distinction arose due to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case, Alexander v. Sandoval (2001), in which the justices determined that there is no private right of action to file a disparate impact claim pursuant to Title VI. Accordingly, only officials of the OCR may file disparate impact charges under the agency’s regulations.

Karen Miksch

See also Civil Rights Movement; Disparate Impact; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Title VII

Further Readings

  • Kluger, R. (1997). Simple justice: The history of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s struggle for equality. New York: Vintage Books. 

Legal Citations