How the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed America
When Earl Ofari-Hutchinson watched President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the historic Civil Rights Act on television five decades ago, something inside him stirred.
Then a Susan Miller Dorsey High School senior from South Los Angeles, Ofari-Hutchinson scanned the vast number of prominent civil rights leaders and bipartisan congressional leaders who had gathered around the Texan president. He was particularly struck when Johnson, shortly after signing the landmark legislation, turned to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. standing behind him and handed him a souvenir pen.
“That was a great moment of not only personal pride but of historical accomplishment,” Ofari-Hutchinson, today an author and political analyst who lives in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, said. “I know all African-Americans, no matter what age, what their religion or political convictions, or social standing, education or profession, all uniformly took pride in that moment.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination and segregation on the basis of race, religion, national origin and gender in the workplace, schools, public accommodations and in federally assisted programs. For the young Ofari-Hutchinson, the signing of the bill ignited “a profound awakening” to the racial injustices African-Americans had faced around the country and an introduction to the world of politics. He and other civil rights leaders are calling on the Los Angeles City Council to declare July 2 Civil Rights Remembrance Day in honor of the 50th anniversary of the act’s signing. Meanwhile, Councilman Bernard Parks is slated to introduce a city proclamation today honoring the 50-year-old legislation.
“It totally changed America,” said Ralph D. Fertig, a USC social work professor who lobbied Congress to pass the bill as a member of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “Before the Civil Rights Act, employers were free to advertise positions saying ‘No Negroes need apply’ or ‘Whites only’ and the prospect of having interracial gatherings in many of the states in the South was impossible. Hotels and restaurants were free to discriminate with impunity. There was no way they could be forced to desegregate, and there were still signs up that said colored bathrooms, white bathrooms, colored fountains, white fountains.”
The Civil Rights Act also had a profound effect on schools. Even though the Supreme Court had ruled in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that segregation in schools was inherently unequal, there had only been incremental efforts to desegregate public schools and universities in the subsequent decade. The Civil Rights Act required schools to take actual steps to end segregation, whether it was by busing, redistricting or creating magnet schools, Fertig said.
“It meant that black and white children got to know one another in school, just as Title VII of the act prohibited discrimination in the workplace, it got workers to interact with one another and find out they were human beings,” Fertig, a retired federal administrative judge and a former Freedom Rider in Chicago, said.
Joseph Alford, president of the Carson-Torrance branch of the NAACP, went to a segregated high school in Anniston, Ala., in the 1950s and after a stint in the U.S. Army, attended the then-all-black Alabama State College. While living in Montgomery, Ala., he protested with King and other civil rights leaders and fought to change unfair voter registration practices.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also banned unequal application of voter registration requirements and paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned discriminatory literacy tests and offered other protections.
“I was very elated because it would help a lot of black folks get into office because other people would be able to vote without being harassed and that was a good thing,” Alford, 80, of Carson, recalled.
Aaron Day, 74, of Long Beach had just moved from Ohio to Los Angeles when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed. He was thrilled, he said, because he had attended segregated schools in Ohio and had worked in kitchens of restaurants as a teen where he would not have been served as an African-American.
When he moved to California, he said he was “really surprised that I could go and sit down in different restaurants, wherever I wanted” without being harassed.
The Rev. Pamela Broadous of Pacoima recalls picketing with her father, the late community activist the Rev. Hillery T. Broadous, and four of her siblings at Woolworth in Panorama City as a 9-year-old in 1960. It was only when she returned home that her mother, Rosa L. Broadous, told her they were protesting lunch counters that seated only white customers at some of the retailers’ stores in the South.
“I was very, very young so she didn’t get real detailed about the horrors of the time, people getting beat and all that stuff,” she said. “I felt like I was glad that my father had taken us out that morning. I didn’t understand at the time that it was part of a bigger movement.”
But 50 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, Broadous and other civil rights activists say much remains to be done to ensure equality for all. There are still issues around the country, for example, with voting access and in the criminal justice system, she said.
The act “banned overt discrimination; that’s what it did,” she said. Today, “a (black) kid can be walking home from the store and be shot and killed and the man who killed him be found innocent and a (black) woman protecting her children who shoots a gun in the air gets sentenced to 20 years in jail. Where is the sense in all that? Where is the justice?”