*Noting the 50th anniversaries of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ACSblog is hosting a symposium including posts and interviews from some of the nation’s leading scholars and civil rights activists.
The fiftieth anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is an occasion worth celebrating. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the first major civil rights law adopted since the end of Reconstruction. Its provisions prohibit racial discrimination in some crucial areas of society.
Title II forbids hotels and restaurants from discriminating based on race, ending a form of racial separation that existed throughout the United States and especially in the South. Title VI prevents recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, a provision that was crucial in forcing many school systems to desegregate. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, or religion. Initially this was limited to private employers, but Congress quickly expanded its coverage to government entities.
The enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a political triumph for Lyndon Johnson. He appealed to the nation’s collective guilt over the assassination of President Kennedy and urged the enactment of the law as a tribute to the slain leader. A Southerner and a former Senate majority leader, Johnson was able to persuade opponents to end their filibuster and allow a vote in the Senate, which then joined the House of Representatives in passing the bill. Over two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress voted in favor of it.
But what is often forgotten is that the opposition to the Act was not based solely on racism. Those who disagreed invoked the principle of freedom of association: owners of businesses should be free to do business with and employ whomever they want. The claim was that the owner of a hotel or a restaurant should be free to refuse service on any basis to anyone, including race. Similarly, the argument was that employers should be able to choose who they want to associate with in the workplace. Thus, opponents of the Act claimed that owners should be free to use their property however they want and it was wrong for the federal government to restrict their choices by prohibiting discrimination.