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.
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.
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.
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.