In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson went to Congress and asked them to pass a comprehensive civil rights bill. President John F. Kennedy had proposed such a bill in June of 1963, mere months before his death, and Johnson used Kennedy's memory to convince Americans that the time had come to address the problem of segregation.
After the end of Reconstruction, white Southerners regained political power and set about reordering race relations. Sharecropping became the compromise that ruled the Southern economy, and a number of African Americans moved to the cities of the South, leaving farm life behind. As the African-American population of the South's urban centers grew, white Southerners began passing restrictive segregation laws, demarcating urban spaces along racial lines.
This new racial order--eventually nicknamed the "Jim Crow" era--did not go unchallenged. One notable court case that resulted from the new laws ended up before the Supreme Court in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson.
Homer Plessy was a 30-year-old shoemaker in June of 1892 when he decided to take on Louisiana's Separate Car Act, delineating separate train cars for white and black passengers. Plessy's act was a deliberate decision to challenge the legality of the new law. Plessy was racially mixed--seven-eighths white--and his very presence on the "whites-only" car threw into question the "one-drop" rule, the strict black-or-white definition of race of the late 19th-century US.
When Plessy's case went before the Supreme Court, the justices decided that Louisiana's Separate Car Act was constitutional by a vote of 7 to 1. As long as separate facilities for blacks and whites were equal--"separate but equal"--Jim Crow laws did not violate the Constitution.
Up until 1954, the US Civil Rights Movement challenged Jim Crow laws in the courts based on facilities not being equal, but that strategy changed with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) when Thurgood Marshall argued that separate facilities were inherently unequal.
And then came the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and the sit-ins of 1960, and the Freedom Rides of 1961.
As more and more African American activists risked their lives to expose the harshness of Southern racial law and order in the wake of the Brown decision, the federal government, including the president, could no longer ignore segregation.
The Civil Rights Act
Five days after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson announced his intention to push through a Civil Rights bill: "We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law." Using his personal power in the Congress to get the needed votes, Johnson secured its passage and signed it into law in July 1964.
The first paragraph of the act states as its purpose "To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes."
The bill prohibited racial discrimination in public and outlawed discrimination in places of employment. To this end, the act created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate complaints of discrimination. The act ended the piecemeal strategy of integration by ending Jim Crow once and for all.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not end the Civil Rights Movement of course. White Southerners still used legal and extralegal means to deprive black Southerners of their constitutional rights, and in the North, de facto segregation meant that often African American lived in the worst urban neighborhoods and had to attend the worst urban schools. But, in that it was a forceful stand on the part of the federal government for civil rights, it ushered in a new era in which Americans could seek legal redress for civil rights violations. The act not only led the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but also paved the way for programs like affirmative action.