Planning June 2014

50 and Fighting

The origins and legacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

By Frances Fox Piven

The editors of Planning asked me to write an article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I think the anniversary we really mean to celebrate when we think of the 1964 act is the beginning of a half-century of sometimes convulsive changes in the American racial order that together overturned our system of apartheid. 

The passage of the Civil Rights Act was part of that, and so were the federal court decisions of the post-World War II period that undercut southern caste arrangements and culminated in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision — in Brown v. Board of Education — declaring racially separate schools unconstitutional because they were inherently unequal. And between 1957 and 1965 not one but four civil rights laws were enacted, the most important being the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Notwithstanding some setbacks in recent years, including the weakening of the VRA by the Supreme Court in its 2012 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, these were great legal achievements that changed America.

Illustration by Luba LukovaIt is worth pondering what made all this possible. After all, a century earlier, in the wake of the Civil War, the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution had also been celebrated for promising "a new birth of freedom." But before the 19th century was over, what enthusiasm there had been in the North for racial reform faded, and while many of the old southern landowners were gone, ruined by war, the system of plantation agriculture with essentially coerced black labor had been reestablished.

The key elements were legal apartheid, the violence of the lynch mob, and a one-party system together with the wholesale disenfranchisement of blacks, which left them without influence on the local law enforcement agents who were the kingpins of the southern system of racial control by terror.

In contrast, the upheavals of the mid-20th century promise to have an enduring impact. An important reason is the large role that African Americans themselves played in the more recent period. The Civil War was, after all, at root a war between the sections for national power. Blacks played a perhaps crucial role in the outcome of that war, weakening the southern economy by withholding labor, and strengthening the Union army when they flocked to join its ranks. Still, in the 19th century, the slaves were not the main protagonists in the war between the sections.

But in the mid-20th century, their descendants were the main protagonists in another period of racial upheaval. Black protests thrust the injustices of the American racial order into the very center of American politics, and named the moral legitimacy of the U.S., as well as civil order in American cities, as the price for failing to act on those issues.

Shifts versus status quo

The conflict began in the South, where agricultural mechanization was leading to the displacement and immiseration of former sharecroppers and tenant farmers and day laborers. Some found employment on the mechanizing plantations or in southern cities. But many did not, instead finding their way to the cities of the North.

In 1910, 75 percent of African Americans lived in rural areas, and 90 percent lived in the South. By the mid-1960s, three-quarters lived in cities, and half were outside the South, according to Eric Foner, writing in America's Black Past, published in 1970. These economic and demographic shifts were to have major consequences for American politics, destabilizing electoral alignments and creating the conditions that nourished the black emancipatory movements of the 1960s.

The electoral context was crucial. The majority Democratic Party that emerged from the Great Depression was a peculiar alliance of the solidly Democratic one-party South inherited from the Civil War, and the largely urban working class North that had been drawn into Democratic columns by the calamity of the Depression and the appeal of the New Deal. The coalition was held together by virtue of an agreement of sorts by national Democratic leaders to keep their hands off racial arrangements in the South, and especially arrangements that sustained the South's low-wage labor system.

Accordingly, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to support antilynching legislation, and important national initiatives to protect labor explicitly exempted the southern caste system by exempting agricultural and domestic workers, most of them black. That arrangement was to be strained and then broken by the migration of millions of African Americans to the North, where they were gradually incorporated into Democratic big-city electoral organizations.

Blacks did not get much simply by becoming voters, however: a few leavings of municipal patronage, and some largely symbolic gestures from the national party, such as removing the rule that required a two-thirds majority for a presidential nomination (which guaranteed southern delegates veto power) in 1936, and the declaration that white primaries were unconstitutional by a Roosevelt-oriented Supreme Court in the early 1940s. These were at best only harbingers of black electoral power; by themselves they might not have significantly strained the peculiar Democratic coalition.

The 1948 presidential election threw the potential problem into relief. Harry Truman, the Democratic nominee, was campaigning in a close race against Republican Thomas Dewey, but he also found himself challenged from the left by Henry Wallace, a third party candidate. Wallace had no chance of winning the presidency, but his New Deal-style campaign drew some support from organized labor and, more importantly for what the future would hold, from northern blacks. 

To stem any defections on his left flank, Truman ran on a platform that championed civil rights, going so far in a special address to Congress as to call for legislation to outlaw the poll tax, and to make lynching a federal crime. He also promised to issue executive orders to abolish segregation in the armed forces, and to end discrimination in federal employment.

For the time being, however, these were just promises, the sorts of promises that were enough to spur the Alabama and Mississippi delegations to walk out of the Democratic convention in 1948 and to prompt the creation of a southern States' Rights party, but not enough to force Democratic action on civil rights policies.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation of schools unconstitutional. Thurgood Marshall (center) argued the case before the court

New rhetoric, new day

It took the emergence of the Black Freedom Movement to transform rhetoric into policy, but that movement when it erupted in the late 1950s almost surely drew courage from the new rhetoric. In the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee, tried to straddle the gap between the factions in his party, hoping to appease the South by remaining vaguely noncommittal on civil rights, especially on the issues of segregation that had been brought to the fore by the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown decision, which struck down school segregation.

"We must proceed gradually," he said, "not upsetting habits or traditions that are older than the Republic." But black voters in the North were restive and not easily appeased, as demonstrated by their defections from the Stevenson ticket in 1956.

Southern blacks were getting impatient as well. The U.S. Constitution gave all blacks a nominal right to vote, but southern blacks were often blocked at the polls, and racial apartheid was the foundation of a rigid caste system.

It was in the South that the freedom movement first emerged in all of its drama, with the remarkable Montgomery, Alabama, 1955 bus boycott sparked by the refusal of seamstress Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus. Her action may not have been spontaneous, prepared as she was by her experience at the Highlander Folk School, a training ground for labor activists. But the mass mobilization that her action sparked welled up from forces far larger than this single Tennessee school.

Within just a few days, the boycott was nearly 100 percent effective, and Martin Luther King Jr., a newcomer to Montgomery, was elected to lead the boycott committee. As the boycott wore on, it drew national and even international attention. Eventually, the Supreme Court declared Alabama's state and local bus segregation laws unconstitutional.

Throughout these events, and especially after the Supreme Court decision, white reprisals escalated, culminating in the dynamiting of black churches and homes, shootings, and beatings.

Rising up

This pattern of mass civil rights protests and white resistance was repeated in the years that followed as young black activists, many of them students, engaged in "direct action" protests such as lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides across the South — and whites reacted with beatings, burnings, and gassings. According to historian and social activist Howard Zinn, "Over 50,000 people — most were Negroes, some were white — participated in one demonstration or another in a hundred cities, and over 3,600 demonstrators spent time in jail" in the first year following the lunch counter sit-ins, which spread to 15 southern cities in 1960.

Sit-ins were followed by freedom rides challenging segregation in bus and train terminals, bringing arrests and white mob violence in their wake, and adding to the quandaries of the Kennedy administration. Then, when the city of Albany, Georgia, insisted on ignoring an order by the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate the transportation terminals, demonstrations by blacks produced mass arrests and injuries at the hands of the police, demonstrating both the extremism of the white South and the growing willingness of large numbers of southern blacks to confront the police and fill the jails.

The next big confrontation occurred in Birmingham, beginning in the spring of 1963. Early in the demonstrations, King was arrested and 500 state troopers arrived. An agreement was brokered by the federal government that called for the desegregation of some facilities and the release of 3,000 imprisoned demonstrators.

Then the retaliatory bombings began, targeting King's brother's home and the motel where the black leadership was headquartered, and the black community broke into tumult. With rioting in the streets, President Kennedy ordered in federal troops.

Very quickly, the protests spread across the country. During the week of May 18, the U.S. Department of Justice counted 43 major and minor demonstrations. And, anticipating the shape the movement was soon to take, 10 of them took place in northern cities.

Prelude to the law

Seat layout on the bus where Rosa Parks sat, December 1, 1955On June 11, 1963, the Birmingham campaign, together with the demonstrations it had triggered across the country, finally reckoned up a big victory. In a televised address to the nation, President Kennedy announced that he was asking Congress to enact a comprehensive Civil Rights bill. Privately, he admitted to Civil Rights leaders that "the demonstrations in the streets had brought results, they had made the executive branch act faster and were now forcing Congress to entertain legislation which a few weeks before would have had no chance."

Hardly had Kennedy spoken than Medgar Evers, secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, was shot and killed in the driveway of his home in Jackson, the state capital. Through the summer of 1963, demonstrations multiplied across the country. Then in August the streets of Washington, D.C., filled with hundreds of thousands of people demanding action on civil rights and economic hardship. 

Three months later President Kennedy was assassinated, and the following July President Lyndon Baines Johnson pushed a significantly strengthened Civil Rights bill through the Congress. In the election that followed, Johnson won more than 90 percent of the black vote — and lost the deep South by large margins. 


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been won, but the struggle was hardly over, as the movement leadership was well aware. The act ostensibly gave blacks the right to vote, but southern intransigence made the realization of that right doubtful.

Voter registration drives had been foiled by the resistance of white election officials, and in some places blacks were barred from the primaries and regular party caucuses. When a Freedom Summer voter registration drive began in 1964, three of the recruits were murdered before they reached the field, two murdered blacks were found floating in the Mississippi River, and 25 black churches were bombed in Mississippi alone.

The solution was federal oversight and federal voting registrars. To force the president and Congress to act, another mass mobilization was planned, this time focused on Selma, Alabama, where voter registration efforts by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had already provoked white violence, much of it by the police.

The campaign began in January 1965 with marches to the courthouse, each march producing many arrests. Arrests, jailings, and gassings continued, and northern dignitaries converged on Selma. In March, President Johnson called for the passage of a voting rights act. Voter registration drives and retaliatory violence escalated, and by August, the president signed the legislation.

Through these events, more and more blacks crowded into the urban ghettos of northern cities. These recent migrants naturally had a strong affinity with the freedom movement in the South, and they also played a major role in its success because their votes, concentrated in states crucial to presidential aspirants, played an important role in Democratic calculations of how to respond to movement demands for desegregation and voting rights.

On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 Americans packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the March on Washington for Jobs and Education

In the North

But northern blacks had issues of their own. Ejected from southern agriculture where their labor was no longer needed, they were also effectively liberated from the southern system of oppression, a system that relied in roughly equal parts on legal apartheid and the semi-institutionalized terror of the lynch mob.

But life in the increasingly compacted ghettos of the North was hard, too. Employment was scarce, the housing was dilapidated and getting worse as more people arrived, neighborhood schools were segregated and inferior, and the newcomers were largely excluded from the local political patronage and honorifics that had paved the way for the political integration of earlier waves of urban immigrants from Europe and elsewhere.

By the early 1960s, with Freedom Rides, sit-ins, and marches spreading in the South, protests erupted in the North as well. The ideas and passions that fueled the civil rights protests in the South had traveled, along with the millions of largely rural African Americans, to the cities of the North.

However, these protests were different. In the South, the right to vote and an end to legal segregation had been the principal movement demands. But blacks were allowed to vote in the North, and racial segregation was not enforced by law. As was often said at the time, blacks could sit at integrated drugstore lunch counters, except that they did not have the money for a hamburger. The demands of the northern movement were largely economic.

Blacks there wanted jobs and better jobs, which meant entry into the trades from which they were barred by white unions and racially biased civil service rules. They wanted housing with heat and hot water. They wanted a voice in the running of the schools their children attended, and influence over the police who patrolled their streets. In other words, they wanted political influence in municipal affairs.

Not only their demands, but also the forms of the protest actions they organized were different. The protestors relied far less on the religious themes so important in the South, or on the ministers who emphasized those themes. The migrants were less tied to the black church and to the Jesus story of humble martyrdom that undergirded the nonviolent strategies of the southern movement.

Accordingly, the northern protests were far rowdier, their leaders more flamboyant, and their protest events were more disruptive and sometimes more destructive.


The major achievement of the northern movement was the battery of policies now known as the Great Society, including a wide variety of federal initiatives to reduce poverty. Some of those initiatives were short-lived; support withered and opposition grew once the black movement subsided.

But others, including Medicaid and Medicare, Supplemental Security Income, the liberalization of social security, and the expanded nutritional supplements of the 1960s have endured, helping to buffer the impact of declining wages and rising poverty of our current neoliberal regime. Matters would be much worse without the policy wins of the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s.

And there were less easily measurable achievements as well. The inspirational message of the Black Freedom Movement, and the funds made available by the policies that responded, began to penetrate the professions.

Lawyers were hired as poverty lawyers, and new legal research centers were created to develop case law in areas like welfare, health, and employment. Social work changed, with more young people specializing in community work. Young doctors began to seek out practices that served the poor. Universities introduced new specialties that focused on the experiences of women, blacks, and other minorities, and paid more heed to dissident scholars.

Planning changed, too. I received my planning degree from the University of Chicago in 1962 and went to work in New York City, where community protests were building against the mega urban renewal and highway projects for which Robert Moses was famous.

Young planners influenced by the powerful messages of the Black Freedom Movement now wanted to do what they called social planning, or advocacy planning, or (later) equity planning. And some of them did, finding jobs through the new community action or Model Cities programs. Planning and planners were wiser for the tumult, no matter that the real estate and financial industries soon regained command in New York and elsewhere.

It was the extraordinary rising of black people themselves that finally achieved something like a "new birth of freedom" in the U.S. True, subsequent developments, including the rise of financial capitalism, the attack on union rights, the evisceration of New Deal programs, and widening inequality, created new and awesome problems for American democracy.

The lesson that I think should be drawn from the Civil Rights Act is that to reverse these trends toward oligarchy we need to hope for and support renewed protest movements from the lower reaches of American society.

Frances Fox Piven is on the faculty of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author or coauthor of Regulating the Poor, Poor People's Movements, Why Americans Still Don't Vote, and Challenging Authority.


Illustration by Luba Lukova,

Images: Top — In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation of schools unconstitutional. Thurgood Marshall (center) argued the case before the court. Photo by George Tames/The New York Times. Middle — Seat layout on the bus where Rosa Parks sat, December 1, 1955. Photo courtesy Wikipedia, Bottom — On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 Americans packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the March on Washington for Jobs and Education. Photo courtesy Wikipedia,

Several books about the Civil Rights era delve into the details. See Anthony Lewis's Portrait of a Decade and Howard Zinn's SNCC: The New Abolitionists, both published in 1964. Also: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s A Thousand Days (1965); Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power (1966) by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak; From Slavery to Freedom (1969) by John Hope Franklin; and Eric Foner's America's Black Past (1970).

Voting Laws Roundup 2014

The struggle to protect and enhance voting rights is ongoing. In January 2014 alone, legislators in 31 states introduced bills to expand voting access, while legislators in 19 states introduced bills that restrict it.

Enhancing Voter Access

Modernizing voter registration. At least 18 states have introduced bills to modernize the voter registration system and make it easier for eligible citizens to register.1

More early voting opportunities. At least 13 states have introduced bills that would newly introduce, or expand, opportunities for early in-person voting.2

Preregistering students to vote. At least 11 states have introduced bills that would allow students under the age of 18 to preregister, so that upon turning 18 they are registered to vote.3

Restoring voting rights. At least seven states have introduced bills that would expand opportunities for those with criminal convictions to regain their right to vote.4

Identification laws. At least nine states have introduced bills that would relax existing voter ID or proof of citizenship laws.5

Making it easier for students to vote. At least one state has introduced legislation that would make it easier for students to register and vote.6

Reducing long lines. At least one state has introduced a bill to reduce waiting times by requiring, or assessing, the implementation of minimum standards for efficient polling place administration.7

Improving access for military voters. At least four states have introduced bills aimed at expanding opportunities to vote for voters in the military.8

Expanding voting by mail. At least 13 states have introduced bills aimed at expanding opportunities to cast ballots by mail.9

Guaranteeing the right to vote. At least one state has introduced a bill that would amend its constitution to guarantee the right to vote.10

Improving list maintenance. At least one state has introduced a bill to improve voter list maintenance to protect eligible individuals against wrongful removal.11

Restricting Voter Access

Identification laws. At least 11 states have introduced legislation either requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls or making existing photo ID laws more restrictive.12 At least two states have introduced legislation requiring proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, to register or vote.13

Making voter registration harder. At least eight states have introduced legislation to limit voter registration mobilization efforts and reduce other registration opportunities.14

Reducing early voting opportunities. At least two states have introduced legislation to limit existing opportunities to vote early in person.15

Making it harder for students to vote. At least one state has introduced legislation that would make it harder for students to register and vote.16

Reducing opportunities to vote by mail. At least five states have introduced legislation that would make it harder to cast ballots by mail.17

Making voter purges worse. At least one state has introduced legislation to limit protections for voter purges and increase the chance of wrongful removal of eligible voters.18


  1. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington. As of January 23, 2014, bills are active in Massachusetts, Nebraska, and New York.
  2. Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia. As of January 23, 2014, bills are active in Massachusetts and New York.
  3. California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Washington. As of January 23, 2014, bills are active in California, Massachusetts, and Washington.
  4. Arizona, Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Virginia. As of January 23, 2014, a bill is active in Kentucky.
  5. Arizona, Kansas, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin.
  6. New York.
  7. Ohio.
  8. Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia.
  9. Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia. As of January 23, 2014, a bill is active in Colorado. While not counted here, legislation has been proposed in at least one state to expand authority to conduct elections primarily by mail ballots. One such bill is pending in Nebraska.
  10. New York.
  11. Virginia.
  12. Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, West Virginia. As of January 23, 2014, a bill is active in New Hampshire.
  13. Massachusetts, South Carolina.
  14. Alabama, Arizona, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin. As of January 23, 2014, bills are active in Nebraska, Washington, and Wisconsin.
  15. Ohio, Wisconsin.
  16. A bill is active in New Hampshire.
  17. Arizona, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Washington.

Source: Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law,

Note: In the cases where more than one piece of expansive legislation has been introduced in a state, the maps reflect the state's passed, active, or pending status based on its most active piece of legislation.