Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation in the United States was commonly practiced in many of the Southern and Border States. This segregation while supposed to be separate but equal, was hardly that. Blacks in the South were discriminated against repeatedly while laws did nothing to protect their individual rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ridded the nation of this legal segregation and cleared a path towards equality and integration. The passage of this Act, while forever altering the relationship between blacks and whites, remains as one of history’s greatest political battles.
Racial unrest by the summer of 1963 was at its height since the Civil War. President Kennedy picked up the situation at the close of the Eisenhower years at a time when tensions were rapidly increasing. By the summer of 1963, however, after a series of violent demonstrations in the South, particularly in Birmingham, Alabama, President Kennedy pushed for a very strong civil rights bill in Congress. The first of its kind since the Civil War, this bill drastically called for the end of all segregation in all public places. In the eyes of the civil rights movement leaders, this bill was long over due.
Kennedy’s crusade began slowly to the dismay of many civil rights leaders in February of 1963. He began by sending the United States Congress a “Special Message on Civil Rights,” stating,
Our Constitution is color blind, ...but the practices of the country do not always conform to the principles of the Constitution... Equality before the law has not always meant equal treatment and opportunity. And the harmful, wasteful and wrongful results of racial discrimination and segregation still appear in virtually every aspect of national life, in virtually every part of the nation (Loevy, 5).
Kennedy received praise for these strong and moving words yet was criticized for his weak legislative proposals to remedy the situation. By May of 1963, his proposal would change greatly however, after two men, from opposite positions set the civil rights movement into intense motion. Martin Luther King despite advice to do otherwise began massive protests in the street of Birmingham. To combat these protests, Police Commissioner “Bull” Conner used any means, including dogs, fire hoses, and electric cattle prods on protestors. Making newspapers and television everywhere, the Birmingham atrocity along with King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” ignited the moral conscious of Americans nationwide. While Conner earned a negative reputation, President Kennedy wisely commented, “‘Bull’ Connor has done more for civil rights than anyone else...The civil rights movement should thank God for him. He has helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln” (Whalen 86). The apparent Birmingham defeat for King in reality was the key point in which the battle to win civil rights became a national fight with the President as one of its strongest allies.