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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Learn about the civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination in jobs, education, housing, public accommodations, and voting.


  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever enacted by Congress. It contained extensive measures to dismantle Jim Crow segregation and combat racial discrimination.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers to black enfranchisement in the South, banning poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures that effectively prevented African Americans from voting.
  • Segregationists attempted to prevent the implementation of federal civil rights legislation at the local level.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

After years of activist lobbying in favor of comprehensive civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted in June 1964. Though President John F. Kennedy had sent the civil rights bill to Congress in 1963, before the March on Washington, the bill had stalled in the Judiciary Committee due to the dilatory tactics of Southern segregationist senators such as James Eastland, a Democrat from Mississippi.1 After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, gave top priority to the passage of the bill.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 contained provisions barring discrimination and segregation in education, public facilities, jobs, and housing. It created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ensure fair hiring practices, and established a federal Community Relations Service to assist local communities with civil rights issues. The bill also authorized the US Office of Education to distribute financial aid to communities struggling to desegregate public schools.2
After a coalition of religious groups, labor unions, and civil rights organizations mounted an intense grassroots effort to lobby support for the bill, the Senate finally passed it on June 11, by a vote of 73 to 27.

Popular resistance to civil rights legislation

The period following the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 witnessed resistance to the implementation of its measures. George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, made a strong showing in the 1964 presidential primaries in Indiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin. His campaign relied heavily on anti-integration rhetoric and bemoaned the loss of “traditional” American values, prefiguring the rise of the new social conservatism.3
There was also some confusion about whether the provisions of the act applied to the private sector. Some public venues attempted to transform themselves into private clubs rather than desegregate and open their doors to African Americans. The Supreme Court declared such actions illegal, thereby upholding the constitutionality of the equal access provisions of the Civil Rights Act.4
Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 included provisions to strengthen the voting rights of African Americans in the South, these measures were relatively weak and did not prevent states and election officials from practices that effectively continued to deny southern blacks the vote. Moreover, in their attempts to expand black voter registration, civil rights activists met with the fierce opposition and hostility of Southern white segregationists, many of whom were entrenched in positions of authority.
Black and white photograph of civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Many marchers are carrying American flags.
Civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.
The vicious beatings and murders of civil rights workers after the passage of the Civil Rights Act radicalized some black activists, who became skeptical of nonviolent, integrationist tactics and began to adopt a more radical approach. On March 7, 1965, six hundred activists set out on a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to peacefully protest the continued violations of African Americans’ civil rights. When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, hundreds of deputies and state troopers attacked them with tear gas, nightsticks, and electric cattle prods. The event, which the press dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” was broadcast over television and splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines, stunning and horrifying the American public. Bloody Sunday galvanized civil rights activists, who converged on Selma to demand federal intervention and express solidarity with the marchers. President Johnson quickly became convinced that additional civil rights legislation was necessary.5

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

A week after Bloody Sunday, on March 15, 1965, President Johnson delivered a nationwide address in which he declared that “all Americans must have the privileges of citizenship regardless of race.”
Johnson informed the nation that he was sending a new voting rights bill to Congress, and he urged Congress to vote the bill into law. Congress complied, and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6, 1965.6
Black and white photograph of Lyndon Johnson extending a hand to Martin Luther King Jr. They are surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, both black and white.
President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Image courtesy the LBJ Presidential Library.
The bill outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other practices that had effectively prevented southern blacks from voting. It authorized the US attorney general to send federal officials to the South to register black voters in the event that local registrars did not comply with the law, and it also authorized the federal government to supervise elections in districts that had disfranchised African Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 transformed patterns of political power in the South. By the middle of 1966, over half a million Southern blacks had registered to vote, and by 1968, almost four hundred black people had been elected to office.
As African Americans joined the Democratic Party, many white southerners began to defect to the Republicans. (Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” designed to shift white Southerners to the Republican Party, accelerated this trend.) With African Americans voting en masse, some Southern Democrats, like George Wallace, began to shed their segregationist rhetoric and attempt to appeal to black voters. At the federal level, President Johnson appointed the first black cabinet member, Robert C. Weaver, as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in 1967 appointed Thurgood Marshall as the first African American justice of the Supreme Court.7

What do you think?

Which provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 do you think were the most important? Why?
How do you think the events of Bloody Sunday affected the Voting Rights Act?
What do you think Lyndon Johnson meant when he said that 'There is no Negro problem . . . There is only an American problem?"

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Brad  H.
    What do you think Lyndon Johnson meant when he said that 'There is no Negro problem . . . There is only an American problem?"

    President Johnson meant that if we discriminate and ill treat a segment of our population (African Americans) then we ultimately hurt America as a whole. He was saying that the racial discrimination going on against African Americans wasn't just a problem for African Americans, rather it was a problem for America. America wasn't and isn't as strong as it can be if we discriminate any of its citizens. Diverse ideas, information, cultures, and experiences are what make America great. By giving African Americans their rights as American citizens President Johnson was not only improving the lives of African Americans, but the lives of all Americans.
    (20 votes)
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    • duskpin seed style avatar for user Elaina Paquette
      Johnson meant that African American people weren't the problem it was the whole world discriminating against each other that was the problem. African Americans can't change the color of their skin but Americans can change the way they handle situations and the way they portray America.
      (18 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user John Ma
    Why did African Americans shift their support from Republicans to Democrats?
    (7 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      From the author:This is a pretty complex answer, but here goes: during and after the Civil War (1854-1877), the Republican Party had been the party of African American rights, so when African American men got the right to vote they voted Republican.

      Then, after 1877, the institution of Jim Crow laws in the South meant that few if any African Americans could vote at all. Democrats in the South were the party of white supremacy.

      Another important point is that both parties, Republican and Democrat, used to have liberal and conservative wings. So the Democratic Party had a northern, more liberal wing that by the 1930s and the Great Depression came to embrace civil rights, while the southern wing of the party was still embracing white supremacy. Northern African Americans began to switch to the Democratic Party. Southern African Americans still couldn't vote.

      In the 1960s, the Democratic Party at the national level aligned more with its liberal wing and began pushing through civil rights legislation (like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act). With those, African Americans had voting rights in the South finally, but white Democrats in the South who supported white supremacy were no longer happy with the Democratic Party. The Republican Party then moved to pick up those white voters, particularly in Richard Nixon's campaign of 1968.

      With that group having moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party both north and south became associated with civil rights legislation, and African Americans in both those regions voted Democrat.
      (39 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Joel Forey
    If the act had not been passed in 1964 would segregation still be in place?
    It's a truly horrifying thought.
    (10 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user Ammarah
      Hmmm. I will have to disagree. Even though it is a scary thought recent innovations in technology and such has allowed us to become more open-minded and accepting. Things like social media and other platforms of communicating helps us to connect with other people and see how they are treated. I'm sure that if the act had not been passed in 1964 it would have happened later. All this being said we can still see many forms of discrimination to African Americans and black citizens all over the world that is very horrifying and unnecessary.
      (14 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user emma.keco
    When they went to the bridge, Why were they attacked if they didn't do anything to harm someone?
    They just peacefully protested, no harm.
    (9 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Caiden
      During this period of time the law did not state brutality against protesters was wrong therefore they attacked to shut down and to stop the protest, they may have reacted with force to show the protesters they were not going to relent and tried to stop them from speaking up.
      (13 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user rick lee
    If president Kennedy had not been killed, would president Johnson had been able to pass the Civil Rights Legislation he did?
    (5 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Bevely E Buerger
      Well no Johnson wouldn't have been able himself to pass the CRL, he would not have been President. The CRL was already a written document on JFK's desk, to JFK it would have been the most important legislation he wanted to pass. LBJ said he was passing this legislation which had been in the Congress in honor of JFK who had fought for the Bill.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Rayyaan Suleiman
    why did civil rights leaders focus their attention on voting rights after the civil rights act of 1964 was passed
    (8 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Neethu
    Did all those people really have to die to bring this issue to light?
    (8 votes)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user Gloria Oladejo
    Is it true that President Lydon B Johnson only passes the Civil Right Act because America was hating on him? Did he really care?
    (7 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 19naumja
    Why would the African Americans join the Democratic Party? They were the ones that were for segregation if I remember correctly?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user D Elizabeth Mensinger
    Did segregation only exist in the South? Did segregation exist in Northern and Western States? It seems like we only focus on the southern states.
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Wherever people of different skin-tones resided in proximity in the USA, there was segregation. The focus on the South is a result of the ways that different skin tones were the source of LEGISLATED segregation in schools, commerce and public accommodations. The legacy of segregation throughout the United States and its colonies (former and current) is shameful segregation that continues to plague relations between residents of the USA in 2023.
      (4 votes)