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Civil Rights Movement: 1954–1974

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Sit-ins, Demonstrations, and Marches

Beginning in 1955 African American and white activists staged nonviolent protests and demonstrations nationwide to call attention to the injustice of segregation.
Civil rights leaders emphasized the importance of nonviolent action to effect change in the South's segregation laws. Civil disobedience, or the peaceful refusal to comply with laws, caught the attention of local business owners and national lawmakers, as did massive gatherings of people of all races petitioning for equality. Nonviolent actions included bus boycotts, marches, and other demonstrations, such as sit-ins, during which protesters refused to leave a particular place until the establishment's policies were changed. They also included Freedom Rides, in which chartered buses carried activists who traveled through the Deep South to test desegregation laws pertaining to interstate transportation facilities.

Major Civil Rights Protests and Demonstrations

Action/Date Led By What Happened Results
Montgomery Bus Boycott; December 5, 1955–December 20, 1956 Jo Ann Robinson, E .D. Nixon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On December 1, 1955, black seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Robinson, the head of the Women's Political Council (WPC) and Nixon, president of the local NAACP, organized a one-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system, which depended on the income from black passengers. Its success led organizers to extend the boycott indefinitely. King, a local pastor, led the long-term effort to challenge local segregation laws. The boycott lasted 381 days.
  • A federal district court determined that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional in June 1956.
  • Montgomery buses became desegregated the following December.
  • African Americans in other Southern communities were inspired to take similar actions.
Sit-Ins; 1960 College students in Greensboro, North Carolina, followed by local organizers throughout the South Started at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, the sit-in movement was an act of nonviolent, civil disobedience to protest Jim Crow laws. During sit-ins, protesters refused to leave a segregated public place, such as a restaurant, store, or library, until the establishment changed its policy. Sit-ins drew unwanted publicity for the owners. By the end of 1961, 70,000 people of all races in 20 states had participated in the movement.
  • Several business owners voluntarily desegregated their establishments.
  • National news coverage of the movement disproved several myths about segregation in the South (such as Southern African Americans didn't mind Jim Crow laws and all civil rights activists came from other parts of the country) and showed the demonstrators to be responsible, respectful people.
Freedom Rides; 1961 CORE members, college students, clergy Interracial groups, called Freedom Riders, chartered buses to travel through the deep South to test the recent desegregation laws pertaining to interstate transportation facilities, specifically bus terminals.
  • Freedom Riders were savagely beaten, arrested, and even firebombed during their travels.
  • The first group had to give up when they couldn't find a bus company to help them finish the trip.
  • The second group prevailed with the help and protection of U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The group achieved their goal of securing even stricter guidelines and protections for desegregated interstate travel.
March on Washington; August 28, 1963 A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Whitney Young (National Urban League), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (SCLC), James Farmer (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC) An interracial demonstration of 200,000 people from all over the country gathered in Washington, DC, to demand equal justice for all citizens. It was here that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
  • The March on Washington was the final push to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The arrival of the Freedom Riders in the Deep South sparked resentful violence. Near Anniston, Alabama, a Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders was firebombed-one of a series of orchestrated attacks on Sunday, May 14, 1961.
Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

Civil Rights Act of 1964 Summary and Overview

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on an individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The nonviolent protests and demonstrations of the early 1960s led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law prohibiting discrimination based on an individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. President John F. Kennedy initially championed the act in 1963, but he was assassinated before it came to fruition. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, urged Congress to pass a stronger version of the bill in 1964. After one of the longest debates in Senate history, Congress passed the bill and Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964.

The Civil Rights Act has 11 parts. Titles I through VII are civil rights laws affecting all Americans. The last four parts are about government practices, institutions, and oversight.

  • Title I requires any voting registration requirements or procedures be applied to all. In this way, the law guarantees equal voting rights.
  • Title II prohibits segregation and discrimination in businesses such as restaurants, theaters, stores, and hotels.
  • Title III desegregates public facilities owned by the states.
  • Title IV requires the desegregation of public schools.
  • Title V expands the function of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a commission created in 1957 for the enforcement of civil rights, and defines the rights of those who are brought before it for violating civil rights laws.
  • Title VI prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs.
  • Title VII prohibits racial and gender discrimination by trade unions, schools, or employers. This section also establishes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), whose job it is to enforce equal hiring practices.
  • Title VIII provides for a survey of voting statistics from around the country.
  • Title IX outlines the procedures for sending civil rights cases back to state courts.
  • Title X provides for the establishment of the Department of Commerce's Community Relations Service, which assists those who have been discriminated against.
  • Title XI details minor miscellaneous aspects of the bill, such as how criminal contempt should be handled in court.

Each section of the document mentions prohibition of discrimination based on one's "race, color, religion, or national origin." Only one—Title VII—specifically mentions discrimination based on gender.