Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 

August 2, 2014 — The National Economic Association (NEA), the American Society of Hispanic Economists (ASHE) and The Griot Institute for Africana Studies invites you to revisit the Freedom and Justice Conference, which was held on the campus of Bucknell University.

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The Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Then and Now

The following is a speech delivered by  Penn State University Professor Emeritus James B. Stewart, titled “The Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Then and Now.”

James B. Stewart, Professor Emeritus
Penn State University
Bucknell University, August 2014


Greetings Colleagues! First let me thank Nina and the Griot Institute for giving me opportunity to address you today as we explore the legacy of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to use three distinct, but overlapping perspectives, to approach this important subject. Specifically, I come to you today as a happily retired academic clothed in the conceptual attires of Historians, Economists, and Activists. Now, now those of us who are economists please don’t get edgy – I know some economists don’t care much for history, so I’ll do my best to limit the amount of pain I inflict on your disciplinary psyches. But, I firmly believe in the old adage that reminds us that if you don’t where you’ve been it is difficult to know where you are and where you are going.  And my activist experiences inform me that once you have decided where you are and where you want to go it is necessary to develop an implementation strategy and execute it effectively to achieve the desired outcomes.  With respect to implementation, it is important to underscore the fact that grass-roots activism was central to the bill’s passage.  And, I warn you in advance, that my conclusion will call for renewed activism by all of us to protect and extend the unfulfilled goals held by the original proponents of the Civil Rights Act. With these multiple goals in mind, I have titled my comments today “The Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Then and Now.”


As a junior in high school in 1964 obviously I had no conception of the scope and significance of this law. Moreover, there is no way that I could have imagined how it might affect my future professional and personal lives. I was even less aware of the intense struggle waged to attain passage of this monumental legislation. Now, reviewing the record some 50 years later, I find the commitment and strategic brilliance displayed by the many stakeholders who fought relentlessly to achieve this milestone to be nothing short of remarkable. Senator Richard Russell, who led the filibuster effort against the bill, famously declared, “We had been able to hold the line until all the churches joined the civil rights lobby in 1964” (Risen, 5). My summary of the history of the Civil Rights Act relies extensively on two recently published works – An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Two Presidents, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Todd Purdum and The Bill of the Century, The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act by Clay Risen.


Time limitations prevent me from exploring the many dimensions of this heroic struggle – so, reflecting my economics training; I will focus my comments primarily on Title VII, which targets employment discrimination.  I believe this is a reasonable choice because economic inequality driven by employment discrimination has proven to be the most intractable arena of all those addressed by the Civil Rights Act.


Supporters of strong anti-discrimination legislation might well have taken heart from comments made by John Kennedy during the first debate with Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign. As reported by Todd Purdum, Kennedy declared,


“The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section or the state in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school degree as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one third as much a chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much a chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter and the prospects of earning only half as much.”

In many respects John F. Kennedy was an unlikely candidate to be the initiator of the legislative initiative that eventually produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964. James Farmer, then head of the Congress of Racial Equality, opined at the time of his inauguration that Kennedy was “ignorant on civil rights   in particular and blacks in general” (Purdum, 40). Yet, despite this handicap, early in his administration Kennedy did break some new ground in advancing racial equality, including the appointment of some forty African Americans to federal posts and the establishment of a presidential Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961, chaired by Vice President Lyndon Johnson. However, the Commission had limited powers and, as Clay Risen observes, “The committee rarely pursued punitive action: instead, through a [voluntary] program called Plans for Progress, it engaged leading contractors to create programs to root out discrimination and promote fair hiring practices” (Risen, 27).

In fact, as Clay Risen reports, “Kennedy did not want a ban on employment discrimination in the bill at all . . . {b}ut civil rights lobbyists persuaded House Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler to add it” (Risen, 5). Kennedy announced the introduction of the bill in a June 11, 1963 speech delivered in the wake of the violence accompanying the protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Three weeks prior to the speech Kennedy had been berated at a meeting with a group of high profile celebrities including James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Kenneth Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and Lena Horne. Kennedy’s bill included seven provisions that would later become labeled as “Titles.”


  1. Enforcement of the Right to vote in federal elections
  2. Outlawing discrimination in public accommodations, excluding private clubs
  3. Authorization for the attorney general to initiate public school desegregation suits
  4. Establishment of Community Relations Service to mediate racial disputes
  5. Extension of the Civil Rights Commission life for 4 years
  6. Prohibition of discrimination in federally assisted programs in states and localities
  7. Establishment of an “Equal Employment Opportunity Commission” to address discrimination by government contractors


The bill, designated as H.R. 7152 was introduced the same day that Medgar Evers was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Notably, the initial bill did not include provisions for a Fair Employment Practices Commission, with the power to investigate job discrimination by private companies. As deliberations progressed into the Fall, Kennedy indicated that he would support dropping Title VII if that was required to get the bill through the House.  However, he was quickly forced to backtrack. Shortly after the bill’s introduction it was Rep. Peter Rodino of NJ who was responsible for an amendment authorizing the proposed EEOC to investigate discrimination by any business with more than 25 employees.


Following Kennedy’s assassination Lyndon Johnson became the bill’s principal champion. Johnson, a Southerner and close friend of Senator Richard Russell, who was the primary opponent of the legislation, would have, on first glance, seemed to be much less likely to support the legislation than Kennedy. However, defying expectations, Johnson established top priority to passage of the bill over the objections of his closest advisors. One of the interesting subplots in this saga is the antagonism between Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy who chafed at what he perceived as the diminishing of his brother’s role in initiating the effort. The battle for passage in the House required fighting off massive efforts to weaken Title VII.  The most invidious effort was initiated by Howard Smith, the staunch segregationist who chaired the Rules Committee, who made a final attempt to sabotage the bill by adding “sex” to the list of protected categories. His Amendment passed on a vote of 168 – 133, but this modification failed to stymie passage. The bill passed the House on February 10, 1964 by a vote of 290 to 130. 152 Democrats and 138 Republicans voted in favor. Over the course of the battle over 1,000 persons had come to Washington to lobby for the bill’s passage. Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP was one of the principal lobbyists who pushed aggressively for passage.


The battle then turned to the Senate. I will spare you most of the gory details of how the bill was sheperded through the phalanx of Southern Democrats who had enough votes to prevent cloture. The bill’s supporters were forced to develop a strategy to keep the Senate in session continuously in an extended single “legislative day” in order to limit the number of speeches that could be delivered as part of a filibuster. The primary heroes in this saga were Hubert Humphrey, William McCulloch, and Mike Mansfield. Everett Dirksen played a major role in the process, particularly via the introduction of 11 proposed amendments to Title VII. One of these amendments limited coverage to firms employing workers for at least twenty weeks a year. Note that this amendment left migrant farm workers unprotected.  The last amendment to Title VII introduced on June 13th by John Tower of Texas specified that it would not be illegal for an employer to administer and act or ability test so long as the test was not “designed, intended, or used” to discriminate on the basis of race or sex. The final Senate vote was held on Friday, June 19, 1964 and passed 73 – 27. All but 6 Republicans supported passage along with 46 of the 67 Democrats. The House passed the amended bill by a vote of 289 – 126 on July 2nd and Lyndon Johnson signed the historic legislation on July 4th.


With this historical background in mind, now let me turn to the issue of the contemporary legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and specifically Title VII.  One of the Dirksen amendments has had a profound effect on Title VII enforcement.  Specifically, his insistence on reliance on court rulings rather than EEOC enforcement has, as Todd Purdum suggests, given “rise to a robust wave of private class action employment discrimination lawsuits that effectively altered the composition of the workforce in ways that an administrative agency alone might not have managed” (Purdum 330). However, the bill clearly had several important limitations.  During the early debates there was some consideration of adding provisions for funding of job training that was not included in the final version. In addition, although the bill targeted discrimination, per se, it did not address the issues of limited jobs available in depressed urban areas or educational disadvantages that limited employment opportunities.

As you well know, there is a host of studies that document the persistence of labor market discrimination targeting Black and Latino workers.  Much of this research has been published in the pages of the Review of Black Political Economy. The 1997 edited volume entitled African Americans and Post-Industrial Labor Markets reprinted many of the then contemporary studies documenting the persistence of anti-black racial discrimination in labor markets.The 2005 edited volume, African Americans in the U.S. Economy, presented more recent evidence of the continuing labor market disparities experienced by Blacks.  Several of the relevant articles published in the Review have focused on the plight of Latino/Hispanic workers.  ASHE has, of course been a major voice bringing attention to labor market discrimination experienced by Latino/Hispanic workers. In my opinion, similarities in the experiences of Blacks and Latino/Hispanics, create as of yet unexplored opportunities for collaboration in combatting 21st century economic exploitation. I will return to this issue shortly.

Since the granting of enforcement status to the EEOC in 1972 regular reports have been produced providing statistical information about cases filed and their disposition. Comparative data for the years 2006 to 2012 reveal an uptick in cases received and resolved compared to the last two years of the Bush administration.  However, this increase largely reflects the dramatic weakening of Civil Rights enforcement that occurred during the Bush administration in comparison to the Clinton administration.  In 2012 the EEOC received about 33, 500 race-based complaints and reported resolution of slightly over 38, 400 cases. These figures starkly document the persistence of race-based employment discrimination.

Over the years the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings that significantly constrain the scope of Title VII enforcement. As an example, one decision that I want to highlight is Espinoza v. Farah Manufacturing Co. This is a 1973 case where the Supreme Court held that non-citizens are entitled to Title VII protection and that a citizenship requirement may violate Title VII if it has the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin. However, consider the following language from the majority opinion:

“The question posed in the present case, however, is not whether aliens are protected from illegal discrimination under the Act, but what kinds of discrimination the Act makes illegal. Certainly it would be unlawful for an employer to discriminate against aliens because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – for example, by hiring aliens of Anglo-Saxon background but refusing to hire those of Mexican or Spanish ancestry. Aliens are protected from illegal discrimination under the Act, but nothing in the Act makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of citizenship or alienage.” What this language implies is that discrimination on the basis of citizenship or alien status is actually permissible under Title VII.

This provision is simply one example of the continuing need to update Title VII specifically, and the Civil Rights Act in general. As another example, although the EEOC enforcement trends that I presented are encouraging, at least in comparison to the Bush years, discrimination issues persist within the federal government, and even in the EEOC itself. In January 2010 the EEOC undertook a study to “identify the obstacles that remain in the federal workplace that hinder employment opportunities for African Americans.”[i]  The resulting report, issued in 2013 included some disappointing findings. One of the identified obstacles was “unconscious biases and perceptions about African Americans” that “still play a significant role in employment decisions in the federal sector.”[ii] Educational requirements that “create obstacles for African Americans in the federal workforce” were identified as another employment barrier.[iii] One of the most disturbing findings was that “EEO regulations and laws are not adequately followed by agencies and are not effectively enforced.”[iv] Among the report’s conclusions is that “An in-depth statistical study into how these particular obstacles affect African Americans would be helpful to determine what actions can be taken to address the obstacles.”[v]

The fact that such widespread discrimination problems continue to exist even within the federal government, including the agency charged with investigating and adjudicating discrimination complaints in the private sector, does not inspire confidence that equal employment will advance substantially in the foreseeable future.  As scholars it is imperative that we confront this issue and develop new analytical tools to study modern manifestations of discrimination and marginalization.

A growing number of economists, including yours truly, believe that the emerging sub-field of “Stratification Economics” is the optimal vehicle for exploring both historical and contemporary patterns of systemic discrimination. Major Coleman and I have described how racial identity production conflicts are manifested in the contemporary workplace in a piece entitled “The Black Political Economy Paradigm and the Dynamics of Racial Economic Inequality.”  However, workplace discrimination is only one of the many venues in which identity production drives economic behavior. Stratification Economics commands us to integrate historical and economic perspectives to understood the role of race, ethnicity, and other social formations in economic life.  Stratification Economics uses the concept of social stratification as a point of departure for examining structural and intentional processes that concurrently generate hierarchy and economic inequality among ascriptively distinguished groups. Stratification Economics analyzes social processes influencing the nature and reproduction of stratification not only within, but also across different societies.  Within Stratification Economics special attention is directed to the role of racial and caste distinctions and similar group affiliations in producing and perpetuating income and wealth inequality.


In Stratification Economics group identities are treated as produced forms of individual and collective property with both income and wealth-generating characteristics, and whose supply and demand are responsive to changes in production costs and budget constraints.  Cooperative economic and non-economic behaviors are treated as normal outcomes of individuals’ propensity to engage in own-group altruism and other-group antagonism. Theoretical Stratification Economics models predict that an agent’s payoff to cooperative behavior increases with the mean wealth of the agent’s group, thus income and wealth inequality strengthen incentives to engage in cooperative behavior.  With respect to the persistence of inequalities, a game theory analysis by Sandy Darity, Patrick Mason, and me found that across various types of policy interventions only reparations payments can disrupt the structural forces that reproduce wealth inequality.


As suggested by the preceding description, Stratification Economics facilitates comparisons of the historical and contemporary circumstances facing different groups. Consequently the subfield provides a valuable framework for the comparative exploration of Black/Latino/Hispanic issues.

In addition to academic collaboration it is important to build stronger political connections that mirror those during the 1960s. At the same time that Martin Luther King was helping create public pressure for passage of the law, he was also providing resources, public relations, and emotional support for the Latino Civil Rights Movements-and in particular, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. King knew Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as colleagues and privately encouraged them to continue their resistance with their work at United Farm Workers. In the Spring of 1963 as part of the effort to build support for the March on Washington King came to Los Angeles to speak at a Mexican American rally that attracted 20,000 attendees. Five years later, in the months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, King reached out to the Chicano Movement and began meeting with leaders, such as Bert Corona, Corky Gonzales and Reies Tijerina to solicit extensive involvement of Chicanos in the grassroots formation of the Poor People’s Movement.

Subsequently there have been various successful examples of Black/Latino/Hispanic collaboration to combat shared patterns of discrimination and disempowerment. Several of these initiatives have been chronicled in the book, The Collaborative City, Opportunities and Struggles for Blacks and Latinos in U.S. Cities, published in2000. This book was the outgrowth of a 1995 conference held at the University of Illinois at Chicago, of which I was a participant. My contribution to the conference and the volume is entitled, “Understanding the Future: Toward a Strategy for Black and Latino Survival and Liberation in the Twenty-First Century.” Well, my friends, the 21st century is upon us and the need for systematic and sustained collaboration now is even greater than appeared to be the case in the mid 1990s. Indeed, the types of efforts described in that book are gaining momentum. As an example, I had the opportunity to visit Eastern Washington University this spring and meet a group of activist students who were in the process of organizing what is labeled as the “Black-Brown Conference” around the theme “Working Together to Educate and Empower our Communities.”

Building on these precedents, it is clear to me that the issue of immigration reform is the predominant civil rights issue of the 21st century. And, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, we must forge a Black-Brown coalition to fight for comprehensive immigration reform. The ramifications of this struggle go well beyond the civilian labor market. To illustrate,

a couple of months ago I participated in a conference at Princeton entitled “Patriots or Invaders? –  Immigrants in the Military in Modern America.” This conference highlighted the contradictory status of immigrants who serve in the armed forces with respect to a path to citizenship.

Finally, let me turn to the issue of the role of scholars in advancing the legacy of the CR Act of 1964. Stratification Economics calls on the conscious intelligentsia to go beyond navel gazing and become actively engaged in political and institution building efforts to alter social trajectories. If economically-based identity conflict is, as I have argued, an integral feature of both traditional and modern societies, then it is imperative that concerned scholars become scholar/activists and participate in collective action to combat persisting inequalities.

Let me offer two examples of the type of scholarly activism that I am proposing. Recently, our colleague Sam Myers and The Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice were lauded for their role in providing critical litigation support to the Minnesota Department of Transportation in its successful defense of its race-conscious programs. Sam served as the expert witness in what was a multi-year court battle over the constitutionality of the federal Department of Transportation’s and Minnesota Department of Transportation’s race-based contracting program.


As a second example, our own, Bill Spriggs received the 2014 Benjamin L. Hooks “Keeper of the Flame” Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The award is given to individuals who “have made significant contributions to racial equality and fairness in the labor movement and have fostered creative involvement to encourage positive outcomes.” He will be honored at the NAACP’s national convention in Las Vegas.

For me, the critical question is how do we move beyond individual acts of heroic scholarly activism and leverage the collective knowledge and experience that is represented at this conference and within the venues with which we are associated? As a starting point I would like to propose a joint initiative of the NEA and ASHE to establish a 21st century variant of he now defunct Black Economic Research Center.  Robert Browne founded the BERC in Harlem in 1969 to function as a think tank and economic laboratory. Under Browne’s leadership young black economists engaged in a variety of research projects that had direct impact on the lives of everyday citizens. One of the most well known outputs of the BERC was the path-breaking study of the status of Black-owned land in the South.  I believe that the NEA and ASHE should consider establishing a 21st century digital equivalent of this Center. Modern technology precludes the need for a significant physical infrastructure. The Center’s mission could include training future political economists, conducting collaborative research, and supporting a legislative agenda that advances the original aims of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If such a venture were undertaken it would be important to break out of our disciplinary comfort zones and fully embrace multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary modes of inquiry. I believe that the planning and execution of such a vision would prove far much less challenging than the myriad of obstacles that confronted the freedom fighters who waged a tireless battle for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Still, in this era of diminished taste for activism, there is a reluctance to undertake the organizing necessary to create this type of institution or even solicit partners from other groups to confront shared manifestations of contemporary discrimination. While there will of course be serious barriers to forging and maintaining inter-group coalitions, even if such collaborations do not emerge voluntarily, societal developments will eventually necessitate their creation. Indeed, as globalization continues to generate a “race to the bottom,” more and more of the marginalized will come to understand that, in the words of George Santayana, “the same battle in the clouds will be known to the deaf only as lightning and to the blind only as thunder.”

Thank you!







Bentancur, J. & Gills, D. (eds). (2000). The Collaborative City, Opportunities and Struggles for Blacks and Latinos in U.S. Cities. New York: Garland Publishing.


Coleman, M. & Stewart, J. (2005). “The Black Political Economy Paradigm and the Dynamics of Racial Economic Inequality,” in J. Whitehead, C. Conrad, P. Mason, & J. Stewart, (eds),  African Americans in the U.S. Economy. Lanham, MD: Rowman-Littlefield, 118-129.


Darity, W., Mason, P. & Stewart, J. (2006). “The Economics of Identity: The Origin and Persistence of Racial Identity Norms.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 60 (3) (July), 283-305.


Purdum, T. (2014). An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Two Presidents, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York: Henry Holt.


Risen, C. (2014). The Bill of the Century, The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. New York: Bloomsbury Press.


Roman, M.J. and Flores, J. (2010). The Afro-Latin@ Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Stewart, J. (ed). (1997). African-Americans and Post-Industrial Labor Markets. New Brunswick:  Transaction Consortium.


Stewart, J. (2000). “The Collaborative City, Opportunities and Struggles for Blacks and Latinos in U.S. Cities,” in J. Bentancur & D. Gills, (eds). The Collaborative City, Opportunities and Struggles for Blacks and Latinos in U.S. Cities. New York: Garland Publishing, 229-251.


Stewart, J. (2008). “Economics, Stratification, in W.Darity, (ed.),” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd edition. Detroit: MacMillan Reference, 530-531.


Whitehead, J., Conrad, C., Mason, P., & Stewart, J. (eds). (2005).  African Americans in the U.S. Economy. Lanham, MD: Rowman-Littlefield.






[i] “EEOC African American Workgroup Report,” (n.d.). URL:


[ii] “EEOC African American Workgroup Report,” (n.d.). URL:


[iii] “EEOC African American Workgroup Report,” (n.d.). URL:


[iv] “EEOC African American Workgroup Report,” (n.d.). URL:


[v] “EEOC African American Workgroup Report,” (n.d.). URL: