The Civil Rights Era (1865–1970)
Political Action: 1963–1965
On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a presidential motorcade through Dallas, Texas. After Kennedy’s death, many civil rights leaders feared that their dream of racial equality would die along with him. The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, had never supported the movement. A conservative Democrat from Texas, he had opposed civil rights legislation while serving as the Senate majority leader.
Support from Johnson
However, in 1963, Johnson surprised black and white Americans alike by announcing that he would honor Kennedy’s commitment to the civil rights cause and that he recognized the need for stronger civil rights legislation. Johnson supported civil rights not so much because he believed personally in the movement but because he wanted to establish himself as the new leader of the Democratic Party and take control of the issue before it spun out of control. As a result, Johnson pushed for an even stronger civil rights bill than Kennedy had ever intended to pass.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
After months of wrangling, Johnson finally managed to convince enough southern conservatives in the House and Senate to support and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . The act consisted of a bundle of landmark laws that outlawed segregation and discrimination in public places, forbade racial discrimination in the workplace, created the Equal Opportunity Commission to enforce these new laws, and gave more power to the president to prosecute violators. Civil rights leaders hailed the passage of the act as the most important victory over racism since the civil rights bills passed by Radical Republicans during Reconstruction.
One interesting aspect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was that it outlawed not only racial discrimination but also discrimination on the basis of color, nationality, religion, and gender. Conservative southerners had actually had gender equality written into the document in the hope that it would kill the bill before it even got out of committee. However, conservatives lost their gamble, and the act passed with the gender provisions, boosting the growing feminist movement and protecting millions of working women.
The Twenty-Fourth Amendment
Later in 1964, Johnson and liberal Democrats were able to get the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified. Designed to help both poor whites and blacks in the South, the amendment outlawed federal poll taxes as a requirement to vote in federal elections.
Meanwhile, the SNCC and CORE, hoping to provoke southern extremists even further, organized a voter registration campaign in Mississippi. As in most southern states, less than 10 percent of the black population was registered to vote, even though blacks outnumbered whites in many districts. The SNCC recruited nearly 1,000 northern white college students to register voters and teach civics classes to black Mississippians in a campaign that it called Freedom Summer.
The SNCC’s leaders believed that any violence against their young volunteers, since they were from the North, would spark even more outrage than usual among northern whites. Indeed, hundreds of Freedom Summer volunteers were beaten, bombed, shot at, or arrested over the course of the campaign. Several even lost their lives. In the most infamous case, FBI agents uncovered the bodies of three volunteers killed by Ku Klux Klan members near Meridian, Mississippi.
Despite the violence, the Freedom Summer campaign succeeded. Volunteers registered tens of thousands of black voters, many of them under the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). More important, the continued violence attracted increased attention and further awakened northerners to the plight of southern blacks.
The Election of 1964
Black leaders from the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party traveled to the Democratic National Convention in 1964 to support Johnson and promote further civil rights legislation. Democrats, however, including Johnson, refused to allow the delegates to speak and refused to recognize the party. Although Johnson still supported the civil rights movement, he feared that incorporating the MFDP into the Democratic Party would prematurely alienate conservatives and end any chance for more protective rights legislation. Although Johnson understood party politics well and his fears were justified, many MFDP activists, who thought of Johnson as an ally, were outraged. Despite the slight, blacks continued to support Johnson, who captured more than 90 percent of the black vote in the election of 1964 . Just as important, Democrats also won control of both houses of Congress.
The Selma Campaign
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr., the SCLC, and the SNCC launched yet another campaign to provoke southern whites, this time in the city of Selma, Alabama. The activists chose Selma because although blacks outnumbered whites in the city of nearly 30,000, only several hundred were registered voters. Tens of thousands of black protesters petitioned for the right to vote outside Selma City Hall, without success. Then, when the protesters marched peacefully from Selma toward the governor’s mansion in Montgomery after a Sunday church sermon, heavily armed police attacked the protesters with tear gas and clubs, injuring and nearly killing many and arresting thousands. The violence was highly publicized, and “Bloody Sunday,” as the media dubbed it, shocked Americans in the North more than previous injustices.
The Voting Rights Act
The events in Selma also angered President Johnson, who immediately summoned Congress in a special televised session, requesting strong legislation to protect black voters. An equally angry Congress overwhelmingly passed the epochal Voting Rights Act in 1965. The new law banned literacy tests as a prerequisite for voting and sent thousands of federal voting officials into the South to supervise black voter registration. As a result, the black voter registration rate jumped dramatically, in some places from less than 10 percent to more than 50 percent. In effect, the Voting Rights Act finally accomplished what Radical Republicans had intended with the Fifteenth Amendment nearly a century earlier, in 1870. Although the Voting Rights Act did not end segregation, it began a positive transformation in the South.