CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 and VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965


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President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. after
signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.



OVERVIEW


Although the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution (passed in 1865) abolished slavery, guaranteed full citizenship rights and bestowed suffrage upon former slaves, African Americans living 100 years later still did not enjoy the full rights and privileges they were owed. Discrimination, sometimes subtle, but often blatant, against any person based on race, color or gender was still a major issue within American society during the 1960s and civil rights activists across the nation were calling for the Federal government to do more to protect the rights of all citizens. When it came to voting, many African Americans were either too apathetic to bother registering or were denied the ability to register by racist white registrars. In other cases, African Americans were unfairly subjected to discriminatory poll taxes or literacy tests to prevent them from voting. Despite widespread voter registration drives and campaigns, the disenfranchisement of black voters continued, especially throughout the deep South.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, though largely symbolic, were major victories for the Civil Rights Movement because they indicated that the most powerful political leaders, namely President Lydon Johnson, were supportive of the movement and were willing to use the power of the federal government to enact social change.

KEY PLAYERS:

Martin Luther King, Jr
President Lyndon B. Johnson
John Lewis
CORE
SNCC
SCLC


LONG-TERM IMPACT:


The provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting, and firing. The word "sex" was added at the last moment. According to the West Encyclopedia of American Law, Representative Howard W. Smith (D-VA) added the word. His critics argued that Smith, a conservative Southern opponent of federal civil rights, did so to kill the entire bill. Smith, however, argued that he had amended the bill in keeping with his support of Alice Paul and the National Women's Party with whom he had been working. Martha W. Griffiths (D-MI) led the effort to keep the word "sex" in the bill. In the final legislation, Section 703 (a) made it unlawful for an employer 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."

Congress determined that the existing federal anti-discrimination laws were not sufficient to overcome the resistance by state officials to enforcement of the 15th Amendment. The legislative hearings showed that the Department of Justice's efforts to eliminate discriminatory election practices on a case-by-case basis had been unsuccessful in opening up the registration process; as soon as one discriminatory practice or procedure was proven to be unconstitutional, a new one would be substituted in its place and new legal action would have to be taken.

In signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Johnson applied a nationwide prohibition against the denial or abridgment of the right to vote and a ban on literacy tests on a nationwide basis. Among its other provisions, the Act contained special enforcement provisions targeted at those areas of the country where Congress believed the potential for discrimination to be the greatest. The Act also gave the Attorney General the authority to appoint a federal examiner to review the qualifications of persons who wanted to register to vote. Further, in those counties where a federal examiner was serving, the Attorney General could request that federal observers monitor activities within the county's polling place.

The Voting Rights Act had not included a provision prohibiting poll taxes, but had directed the Attorney General to challenge its use. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), the Supreme Court held Virginia's poll tax to be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.


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Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Johnson on August 6, 1965.





SOURCES:

1) www.historymatters.org/civrightsact
2) www.cnn.com/RACEMATTERS/Archives/1965act
3) www.naacp.org/votingrights/page3.htm
4) www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaRUca7FyAc





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