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Why the 1964 Civil Rights Act Worked with an Ironic Twist

Updated on May 29, 2014

Signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act


Congress had passed various civil rights legislation prior to its landmark 1964 Act. A need for a strong law that eradicated racial discrimination from society was clear in that year.

Previous anti-discriminatory measures had failed miserably to create a just society. Instead, both public and private discrimination remained rampant.

So, just what made the 1964 Civil Rights Act different? On this 50th anniversary of the end of legalized racism, we should all pause to consider the answer to this question.

Basis of Congressional Authority

One central problem with the previous laws aimed at ensuring African American equality was the basis of Congressional authority. The Supreme Court could, and did, invalidate these laws when they found them lacking a definitive link to the Constitutional powers accorded to Congress.

Though the Court often allowed other legislation to pass muster without seeming solid Constitutional grounding, it nonetheless tended to require a higher standard when African American civil rights were an issue. Consequently, the nation remained mired in explicit race prejudice from the end of the War Between the States until the mid-1960s.

The Civil Rights Movement forced America to reevaluate the treatment of citizens. Following the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson assumed office and began lobbying Congress to pass another bill to end the almost one hundred years of second class citizenship African Americans had suffered since the end of the Civil War in 1865.

To help ensure that the Supreme Court would not strike down or otherwise eviscerate the new law, Congress based the 1964 Civil Rights Act on its authority to regulate interstate commerce. This explicit power listed in the Constitution has traditionally gone largely unchallenged by the judicial branch.

Court Challenges

Not all Americans were willing to accept the right of Congress to force African American equality upon the states and private citizens. These types of people refused to abide by the law. However, in two important cases, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Attorney General proved a willingness to ensure the rights African Americans had held theoretically since their widespread emancipation from slavery.

Katzenbach vs. McClung

Ollie McClung owned a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. Ollie's Barbecue refused to serve African American patrons, despite the Civil Rights Act provisions demanding equal accommodations for all races.

McClung argued that the law did not apply to him because he was not involved in interstate commerce. All of the restaurant's customers were locals, the recalcitrant owner opined. The Supreme Court disagreed with McClung, ruling that regardless of the customer base of a business it could still be found in violation of the Civil Rights Act.

The materials used in the restaurant, for example, were made in other states. This simple fact meant that McClung engaged in interstate commerce. Consequently, the law forbidding segregation of the races and the denial of entry to African Americans applied in this instance.

Heart of Atlanta Motel vs. the United States

Moreton Rolleston, the owner of the busy Heart of Atlanta Motel, refused to accommodate African Americans even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Rolleston declared that the Act violated the 13th Amendment because it made him an “involuntary servant” of the government. In federal court, he asked the judges to invalidate the Civil Rights Act and allow him to continue refusing to serve African Americans.

Again, the Supreme Court found the Act within the powers granted to Congress by the founding fathers. Moreover, the justices sent a clear message that they would find most businesses to be involved in interstate commerce, making the law almost always applicable.

Because the Heart of Atlanta Motel served customers from out-of-state, with a location directly off a major freeway, it was undoubtedly a beneficiary of interstate commerce. Moreton Rolleston was found in violation of the law.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and LBJ


Stokely Carmichael and Black Power


The powerful 1964 Civil Rights Act proved to end most forms of explicit racial discrimination. Nevertheless, African Americans still faced serious obstacles to true equality.

Martin Luther King, Jr., stated things succinctly when he said, “For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and cup of coffee?”

From 1965-on, the Movement became less non-violent and more militant. African Americans now possessed in fact the right to full equality. They enjoyed the full backing of the White House and Supreme Court.

Still, the race lacked economic, political and social power to affect real change in their plight. The 1964 Civil Rights Act ironically brought this reality to light, leading to the radicalization of the African American push for justice in the form of “Black Power.” be continued...


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