Compared to the relative quiet of Eisenhower's presidency in the 1950s, the 1960s were rife with political activity. President Eisenhower left the White House after serving for eight years, opening the door for the vibrant young John F. Kennedy who was elected on his promise of a New Frontier.
One of the most pressing domestic issues of the Kennedy era was racial discrimination. In June of 1963, before announcing his plans for civil rights legislation, Kennedy rhetorically asked, "…who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?... I shall ask the Congress to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law."
Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, leaving the Civil Rights Bill to Lyndon B. Johnson's administration. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 came on the heels of Kennedy's death. The act provided African-American men with protected voting rights, banned discrimination in public facilities, and established equal employment opportunity. It also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), withheld federal funds from discriminating institutions, and authorized the Justice Department to initiate suits to desegregate public schools and facilities.
When this piece of legislation reached the Senate, southern senators set out to block it. The bill had occupied the Senate for months when Senator Robert C. Byrd addressed the Senate for 14 hours and 13 minutes in an attempt to filibuster the proposed legislation. When the Senate finally voted on the bill, the roll call stood at 71 to 29 in favor of adoption. Nine days later, the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Johnson signed the act on July 3, 1964.
Congress also adopted the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964, nearly thirteen years after it was proposed. This amendment ended poll taxes in federal elections that were previously used to obstruct poor black Americans from voting. It also gave Congress the power to enforce the article with appropriate legislation.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an example of legislation that enforces the Twenty-Fourth and the Fifteenth Amendments. This act prohibited the use of literacy testing and provided federal registration in areas where under half of all eligible voters were registered. The Voting Rights Act was an extremely effective piece of legislation—soon after its enactment, black voter registration increased sharply.
The Supreme Court forced state governments to incorporate the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in Harper v. Virginia (1966). Annie E. Harper contended that Virginia's poll tax was unconstitutional. The Court agreed, stating that the law violated the Fifteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. This decision prohibited poll taxes in any state or local election.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968 added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act made racial discrimination in housing illegal and provided protection for civil rights workers. It is also referred to as the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Copyright 2006 The Regents of the University of California and Monterey Institute for Technology and Education