Likely the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ushered in a new era in American civil rights, as discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin was outlawed. By signing the law into effect on July 2, 1964, President Johnson completed what his predecessor, President Kennedy, had started. The act, which also paved the way for further school desegregation and the prohibition of discrimination in public places and within federal agencies, was backed by over half of America. And while the act was born out of discrimination, violence, and conflict, its legacy 50 years later is one of a more equal and unified America.
The effects of the Civil Rights Act, and improvements in race relations more generally, are apparent in a March 2014 CBS poll, which finds that 8 in 10 Americans think the act has had a positive effect on the country, with only 1 percent thinking it has been negative. Additionally, the poll also found that 60 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks think the state of race relations in America is good.
However, these fairly positive assessments are relatively new. An analysis of the survey data archived at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at UConn shows that neither whites nor blacks held such a favorable perspective a mere 12 years ago, when only 24 percent of whites and 21 percent of blacks reported having a positive view.
Public opinion toward minority civil rights was even more unfavorable in the past. According to Paul Herrnson, the Roper Center’s executive director and a professor of political science at UConn, “Issues related to race relations and civil rights challenged Americans prior to and during the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, throughout the Civil War period and the 60s, and they continue today. Despite the progress that has been made, many have yet to fully embrace the notion that all Americans are entitled to the same civil rights and liberties.”
1960s climate for the passage of the Civil Rights Act
Race relations in the first half of the 1960s were toxic in many parts of the country. Those years saw numerous sit-ins, marches, protests, and riots in the deep south from Greensboro, N.C. to Birmingham, Ala., as well as forced integration at the University of Mississippi and racial violence by white supremacist leagues in Neshoba County, Miss. In 1963, the March on Washington saw the now famous “I Have a Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King Jr., and in the following year, the poll tax was abolished through the 24th Amendment.
A sign of the times, in 1963, a Gallup poll found that 78 percent of white people would leave their neighborhood if many black families moved in, while 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the black civil rights group known as the “Black Muslims.” When it came to MLK’s march on Washington, 60 percent had an unfavorable view of the march, stating that they felt it would cause violence and would not accomplish anything.
In the months leading up to the bill being signed on July 2, there was support for the act, but still one in three were opposed to the bill. One month after its passage, when the implementation phase began, support was just more than 50 percent, with nearly 1 in five voicing uncertainty about the bill. As the civil rights movement intensified and turned violent in some cases, the legacy of the act was cast into doubt.
An examination of the legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 indicates that it has taken several decades for the Act’s effects to be fully felt. In 1965, in the midst of the Cold War, a plurality of Americans believed that civil rights organizations had been infiltrated by communists, with almost a fifth of the country unsure as to whether or not they had been compromised.
Race relations over time
The second half of the 1960s saw the assassinations of civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, riots in Alabama, Los Angeles, Newark, and Detroit, as well as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in the housing market.
The 1980s saw new generations of Americans that believed the Civil Rights Act had indeed worked. Ninety-two percent of respondents in a 1984 poll on the attitudes and opinions of black Americans stated that the civil rights movement had improved the lives of the black community.
However, that is not to say this period was without some controversy in civil rights. The drumbeat for school integration through busing began in the 1970s, and the issue persisted through the 1990s. While support increased nationally from 19 percent in 1972 to 35 percent in 1996, the issue reflects a fragile state of race relations at the time, as well as a significant divide between the races, something that a quarter of a century did not solve. Eight-six percent of whites were opposed to busing in the early 1970s, and two-thirds were still opposed in 1996. Among black respondents a majority in nearly every year favored busing, with only 39 percent opposed in 1996.
Polls on the state of race relations in the country as a whole suggest that things have been improving since the general question was first asked in May 1990, albeit not a steady incline. However, there still exists a gap between the races with whites believing there to be a better state of race relations than blacks. In 2011 there was a 30 point gap between the two groups, but by 2014 the margin had narrowed to its closest point since 1992. As of March 2014, 60 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks believe race relations to be good.
Says Herrnson, “Although things have been trending in a positive direction, the evidence suggests that change comes slowly and public opinion is sensitive to politics and other events.”
Polls measuring opinion on employment opportunities for whites and blacks over time document the differing views of the races. The Gallup Organization has periodically asked a question comparing the opportunities that blacks have to attain jobs compared to whites. The results over time show the same kind of gap that exists on the general view of race relations in the country: since 1978 blacks have consistently been much more likely to say they do not have the same opportunities as whites than the general public.
In the latter part of the 2000s, America once again questioned whether it was ready for a black president. With Barack Obama running on behalf of the Democratic Party in 2008, the time appeared to be right, and public opinion data backed up this sentiment. Support for voting for a black candidate had been steadily rising for several decades. With public opinion surveys conducted since 1996 reporting 9 in 10 Americans would vote for a black candidate if they were qualified, Barack Obama won the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections in what many have considered a significant step forward in race relations. An outcome that would have been simply impossible in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was first passed had now become a reality.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the act, surveys conducted in March 2014 by CBS News found that 52 percent of America believes that we can totally eliminate racial prejudice and discrimination in the long run, and that 78 percent think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an important historical event. But perhaps most tellingly, CBS News found that 84 percent of whites and 83 percent of blacks believed that the act had made life better for blacks in the United States, while only 2 percent thought it had made life worse.
These statistics serve to reaffirm the legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Far from forgotten or relegated to the history books, the act is remembered for the hope and change it brought to a country gripped by racial tensions.
Roper Center iPOLL Databank Surveys, including polling data from CBS News, CNN, Gallup Organization, Pew Research Center, New York Times, Institute for International Social Research, and USA Today.
Civil Rights Act of 1964: http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/civil-rights-act/
For more information, visit the Roper Center website.