Discuss the history of the Civil Rights Act, what president proposed it and got it passed and how it was eventually passed.  From a perspective of policy practice for social workers, analyze the...

Discuss the history of the Civil Rights Act, what president proposed it and got it passed and how it was eventually passed.  From a perspective of policy practice for social workers, analyze the impact this policy had and the lasting impact it has today.

www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/CivilRights  and congresslink.org/print_basics_histmats_civilrights64text.html

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The history of the Civil Rights Act spans two presidential administrations in the turbulent period of 1960s social change.  As early as June 1963, President Kennedy gave words to what would become the Civil Rights Act.  In a speech following the children's protests coming out of Birmingham, Alabama, President Kennedy articulated his vision of Civil Rights as "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments", as well as "greater protection for the right to vote."  Kennedy's words resonated with the nation in Civil Rights as existing on economic, social, and political grounds.  Kennedy's vision of Civil Rights was transformative because it spoke to how the denial of Civil Rights amounts to a denial of human rights and a disenfranchisement of the American Dream, an idea that was rooted in post World War II American visions of prosperity.  President Kennedy started the legislative process that would feature regionalist opposition and support of the bill throughout the fall.

Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 stalled attempts for some time. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, indicated that passage of the bill would honor his predecessor's memory:  "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." While there was significant legislative defiance, featuring abhorrent words spoken by Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina about his opposition to any bill that encourages "intermingling between the races," the President was able to use his position to help legislators "do the right thing" in passing the bill.  For their part, passage of the bill featured bi- partisan support across party lines.  No doubt President Johnson's history in serving in the Senate assisted with the passage of the bill, and being able to form a coalition that was able to overcome Southern opposition. President Johnson was able to see the bill presented to him in July of 1964, signing it into law at that time.

There are eleven parts to the Civil Rights Act.  The first part deals with voting rights, suggesting that voting rules must be equally applied to all races.  It was only with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, again signed by President Johnson, that a clearer understanding of what this exactly entailed became codified law. Title II "outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce; exempted private clubs without defining the term "private."  This part was a direct reflection of President Kennedy's initial vision of Civil Rights in Summer of 1963.  Other components of the bill expanded the Civil Rights Commission in ensuring the delivery of equal rights to all.  Another one deliberately stated the need to desegregate public schools, reflecting the legislative equivalent to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  Other portions of the bill made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the "basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin."  In conjunction with this was the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Finally, the law stated that legal cases that featured all white juries could be transferred to federal courts, moving from state regionalism that might deny Civil Rights to anyone seeking redress in the legal system.

These components were transformative in American History.  Never before had such a bill become law that sought to do so much.  No amount of legislation could undo centuries of discrimination, prejudice, and lack of understanding about race.  However, the Civil Rights Act did represent one of the most significant legislative attempts to address the issue of race in American society. Its vision of Civil Rights encompassing multiple aspects of American life made it so very significant.  It became the template for other groups who sought inclusion into American society.  The bill provided the language of equality that we still use today in examining issues of prejudice and discrimination.  The bill did not stop racism in America.  However, it went very far to demonstrating that the American vision of justice and fairness does not accept racial intolerance and exclusion.  

To a great extent, modern day society still looks at the Civil Rights Bill as the metric for our progress on Civil Rights.  When discrimination on the basis of sexual identity and transgender status becomes a prominent issue in American society, using language from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was evident.  The legislative attempt to provide a realm in which individuals are not discriminated on the "basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin is reflective of the Civil Rights Act.

From a social worker perspective, the Civil Rights Act changed how practice is undertaken.  One of the most significant aspects of the Civil Rights Act was its call for inclusion.  The bill spoke to the reality that many people of color faced in American society.  Experiencing discrimination in nearly all aspects of life became more than social, economic, or political.  It imprinted itself on the psychological makeup of the individual.  In terms of policy practice for social workers, the bill addressed how this imprint has to be addressed.  Social workers recognized that the need to understand an individual's background, one that might be completely different from their own, was critical to providing help to the individual.  The Civil Rights Act demanded that all people acknowledge the voices and authenticate the experiences of other individuals. This helped to provide a paradigm for policy practice in social work, something that is felt today.  The ability to recognize and validate the individual experience is an embedded part of policy practice for social workers, a concept whose roots can be found in the Civil Rights Act.

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