Civil rights laws

The civil rights campaigns during the late 1950s and early 1960s had a significant effect on US society.

New laws were introduced which extended the rights of many black Americans and demonstrated that the Federal government was willing to support civil rights.

However, riots between black and white people in several northern cities between 1964 and 1967, and the move by some civil rights campaigners towards the Black Power movement, demonstrated that the campaigns had not been a total success.

Civil Rights Act 1957


The Civil Rights Act was a response to the civil rights movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the events at Little Rock.

What did the Act change?

The Civil Rights Act meant that a national civil rights commission was convened and the Federal Justice Department would support African Americans if they went to court because they could not vote freely.

Was it successful?

Opinions were mixed about how successful the Act was. It at least demonstrated that the Federal Government was willing to make a stand and not simply allow the southern states to do as they wished.

However, some civil rights campaigners were disappointed with the Act. Although support to encourage black Americans to vote was promised, not a single black voter had been added to the register in the south.

Civil Rights Act 1964


The activities of groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s increased the pressure on President Kennedy to introduce a new Civil Right Bill.

The Sit-ins, Freedom Rides and the events in Birmingham had convinced many members of the public that change was needed. President Kennedy was more open to change than previous presidents.

He said, this nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal…It ought to be possible for every American to enjoy the privileges of being an American without regard to race or color.

What did the Act change?

Discrimination on the basis of race in any or all public places in the USA was banned. An exception was made for places that served less than five people.

It was now unlawful for a business employing over 25 people to discriminate on the basis of ‘race, national origin, religion or sex’.

The Justice Department was allowed to take any state government to court that discriminated against black people.

Was it successful?

Many politicians now felt that the law had gone as far as it could to support African Americans.

On the other hand, civil rights campaigners felt that much more needed to be done, especially in terms of housing and voting rights.

Voting Rights Act 1965


Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a step in the right direction it did little to help African Americans register to vote.

Martin Luther King noted this in March 1965, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave black people some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength.

African Americans were given the right to vote in 1870.

However, many found it difficult to exercise this right as many obstacles were placed in their way.

Many black people had to complete long and complicated forms and interviews in order to register, even a small error could be enough to prevent them from voting.

In the video below US President Johnson introduces the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

What did the Act change?

Literacy tests and many other obstacles to stop African Americans being able to register to vote were banned. The Poll Tax was removed.

Any states wishing to alter their election procedures had to obtain permission from the US Justice Department.

The US Attorney General could send federal examiners to register African Americans in areas where it was deemed this was not being done properly.

The Act effectively removed the last of the 'Jim Crow' laws and marked the end of the civil rights campaigns in the South.

By the end of 1965, there were over 250,000 black voters newly registered and within 3 years, most of the black population of the South had registered to vote.