Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act


This text is provided as background information for A Documents-Based Lesson on the Voting Rights Act: A Case Study of SNCC’s work in Lowndes County and the Emergence of Black Power by Emilye Crosby.

The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act addressed distinct forms of racial discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (signed into law on July 2, 1964) was, in part, a response to demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, led by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The protests highlighted segregation in downtown stores and the employment discrimination against African Americans, who were limited to menial jobs in local businesses and excluded from public sector jobs, like police officers. President John Kennedy, who first sent the text of a civil rights bill to Congress, hoped that banning segregation in public accommodations would end nonviolent direct action and move the movement into the legal arena. The Civil Rights Act that passed Congress in July 1964 did ban segregation in public accommodations. It also acknowledged how little had been accomplished in desegregating schools in the decade after the Brown decision and gave the federal government the authority to withhold federal funds from schools that failed to desegregate. One of the most important aspects of the Civil Rights Act was its ban on employment discrimination based on an “individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” This legislation has been very significant for African Americans and women of all races. It gave a real boost to what became the Women’s Liberation Movement and is an important element of our country’s stand against discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act did little to address the rampant discrimination in voting rights, however, so civil rights organizations pushed hard for what became the Voting Rights Act. Signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and other barriers to Black voting. It gave the federal government the authority to send federal registrars and observers to register new voters and oversee elections. It also required pre-clearance of new election-related legislation in specific locations (states, primarily) with a history of voting rights discrimination. Poll taxes were eliminated in federal elections through the 24th Amendment and in state elections through a 1966 Supreme Court decision, Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.

These are some of the most significant aspects of these critical laws. I highlight these with students and then compare them to the issues African Americans faced (drawn from various documents) to lead a discussion of how the CRA/VRA did and didn’t address these problems immediately and how this legislation could be used over time to address entrenched inequality.

By Emilye Crosby.