With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights struggled with an agenda rapidly expanding in scope, complexity, and controversy. The Commission's work took on a national rather than a regional focus and concentrated on affirmative action and federal enforcement efforts. As impressive gains were made in African American civil rights, the Commission addressed claims from an expanding array of newly mobilized social movements and civil rights constituencies for similar protections and remedies.
The Civil Rights Act made the enforcement of school desegregation possible. Faced with the prospect of losing federal funding, school boards and local governments produced plans to integrate schools. Late in the 1960s and early in the 1970s, the Commission investigated African American education as well as the educational isolation of Hispanic schoolchildren, a legacy of segregation dating from the turn of the century, and recommended changes.
The act's equal employment and other economic-opportunity features significantly affected minorities and women. For example, the Mexican farm workers' fight for economic justice and the Chicano Movement for dignity and identity became inexorably linked. The concept and practice of "affirmative action" significantly expanded the black middle class, although success was limited in breaking through "glass ceilings" in corporate ownerships and upper-management positions. In addition, the recurring "backlash" against affirmative action continued to leave most African Americans in a marginal economic position. Members of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) urged the formation of a "civil rights lobby" for women analogous to the NAACP for African Americans to implement the act. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded, and women active in the civil rights, antiwar, and students' movements also began to raise the issue of women's equality. In government, executive branch remedies for past discrimination included developing a federal contract workforce reflecting the minority and gender makeup of the labor pool.
Even with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, minorities continued to face voting restrictions. The Supreme Court had made it clear, at least since 1944, that the Fifteenth Amendment granting citizens voting rights could not be denied or abridged. Yet, it took another twenty years and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to provide the enforcement measures needed to protect African Americans and other minorities. The results were felt most significantly in the nation's urban areas, as well as in the Deep South where voter registration soared and black municipal officials were elected in large numbers. Many blacks gained control of local governments and paved the way for expanded political influence. Similar results were achieved in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of 1965-1975. Throughout the twentieth century, various Hispanic advocacy organizations had openly protested against poll taxes and other tactics that kept Hispanics from registering to vote. Voting rights cases from the 1970s through the 1990s resulted in the election of Hispanics to previously all-white municipal and county councils and boards.
Late in the 1960s, the Black Power Movement advocated black pride, control over black institutions, and self-determination over integration. It began to replace the earlier strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience with a more militant and aggressive approach. Asian Americans continued to advance their civil rights issues. Many Filipino farm workers partnered with César Chávez and the United Farmworkers Union. Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese students at San Francisco State University united in 1968 to call for ethnic studies programs, a movement shared with African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians. The burgeoning war in Vietnam eventually resulted in large-scale emigration from Southeast Asia to America, and Congress passed legislation to assist the new immigrants.
Homophile groups throughout the country also became more militant, speaking out against police entrapment, working to educate the public and professionals about homosexuality, and fighting against discrimination in government employment, to counter the earlier McCarthyite linking of Communist subversion and homosexuality. The Stonewall riot during a June 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village traditionally marks the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement, although the emergence was in fact more gradual and more complex. In the aftermath of the riot, gay liberation fronts spread like wildfire from New York to other major cities, as well as to college campuses across the country. Women broke away from male dominated organizations to form lesbian feminist groups and collectives. The struggle shifted from the right to public space to education, including the demand for gay and lesbian studies in universities;legal protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual (and, eventually, transgender) people;and equal employment, including in the schools, the military, and government. The modern gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender movement emerged from this period of activism. In 1974, the first federal civil rights bill for gay men and lesbians was introduced in Congress.
The last of the great civil rights statutes of the 1960s was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing throughout the nation. The emergence of modern suburbia in the mid-twentieth century included rigid racial covenants that left a legacy and reinforced racial barriers to public education and jobs. Private developers refused to allow minorities to rent or own homes and federal agencies insured mortgages with racially restricted provisions, all in support of the whites' fears that integration would lower their property values and quality of life. The Fair Housing Act helped shift the center of the civil rights movement from the rural South to the urban North, where racial concentration in housing was more prevalent. The shift spawned a campaign for residential integration and equal housing there and across the nation.
Content used with permission from Eastern National's Guidebook to The American Civil Rights Experience.
Pivotal Moments in Civil Rights in the Late 20th Century
Last updated: April 8, 2016