The Failures of Civil Rights Legislation (by Carolyn Robbins)

Overview:

Students will understand the context for the Civil Rights Act of 1964: what led to the acts creation, what the act guaranteed, and how the act traveled through the government.  They will then observe and analyze the effectiveness of this act.

Framework: 

This lesson will allow students have a more thorough understanding of the successes and failures of our government, as illustrated by the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This lesson will take two class periods; the first class will be a lecture and discussion providing the students with knowledge of the organizations, such as SNCC, which played vital roles in the movement that resulted in this legislation.  This lecture will also discuss the movement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the government until it was finally signed into law.  Students will be expected to analyze sections of this act for content and hypothesize about its effectiveness.  Students will use this knowledge in the second class to critically examine one primary source and one secondary source.  Students will be expected to work in groups, and will use this interaction to achieve an understanding of the government and its relation to themselves and their fellow classmates, through the documents provided as well as individual students perceptions and misconceptions about the legislation.

Essential Understanding:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 exemplifies the differences between the existence of legislation and the implementation of this legislation.

Essential Questions:

  1. What is the Civil Rights Act of 1964?  How did it come to pass, and what was unique about it?
  2. What was the state of the Civil Rights movement around this time?  Did this movement undergo changes, and why might these have occurred?
  3. What was the public sentiment towards this act (and similar legislation) before, during, and after it was passed?
  4. What were the direct consequences of this act?  How was the act enforced or not enforced, and what were the reasons for this?
  5. What do these events demonstrate about the power of the federal government?  What could this mean for Civil Rights issues today?

Glossary:

  1. Jim Crow Laws: state and local laws, which mandated segregation that was “separate but equal”
  2. Title VII: section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin or religion
  3. Ideology: the ideas and manner of thinking of a group or individual

Introduction:

The Civil Rights movement has long been revered as one of the more successful movements for equality in the United States.  The organizations fighting for this equality at first looked to change legislation in order to obtain their deserved rights.  One notable organization that participated in this struggle was SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  SNCC started out as an organizing committee for the various other Civil Rights groups, but soon adopted an ideology of direct action.  SNCC originated as a result of sit-ins, a protest movement that challenged Jim Crow laws by organizing students to sit at segregated lunch counters.1  At the founding conference for this organization, the students affirmed their belief in nonviolent protest principles as were demonstrated in the sit-ins.  SNCC was founded towards the end of an age of extensive protesting, and this prompted them to first become an organizing group that hoped to stimulate further protests.  However, this lull in protests eventually led SNCC to take action themselves to restore the movement.2

SNCC is well known for the direct action that they took, an example being the Summer Project, where members of the organization travelled into the deep South in order to register black voters (an underrepresented demographic).3  This project introduced the belief that these organizations shared towards the beginning of the movement, which was that a change in legislation was the most important way to create equality.

The strength of the action taken by organizations like SNCC led to the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act that served as the “death knell…on Jim Crow and racial segregation.”4  However, this revolutionary act was not the first of its kind.  In fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 closely resembled the Civil Rights Act of 1875, as both acts guaranteed the equal enjoyment of “public accommodations,” or equality in public locations.  The act of 1964 also had similarities with the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.5  Thus, this “ground-breaking” legislation was actually a replication of failed acts of the past.  The failure of these past acts was due in part to limiting factors of the federal government.  For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was put in “Constitutional limbo,” thus rendering it ineffective.  This limbo was the result of a decision made by the Supreme Court, who claimed that the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, was limited to state action and could not do anything about private discrimination.6

It is likely that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have met a similar unsuccessful fate had it not been for the assassination of President Kennedy.  Prior to his death, Kennedy had discussed the need for powerful Civil Rights legislation, and presented a proposal to Congress.  Southern representatives in Congress worked to shut this proposal (the framework of the act of 1964) down, as they had done before with the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.  However, the assassination of Kennedy left Lyndon B. Johnson in the presidency.  President Johnson, looking to convince Democrats that he was an acceptable successor to Kennedy, exerted “political muscle” to successfully get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.7

In our upcoming lesson, we will begin to understand what the past failures of Civil Rights legislation, and subsequent creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, meant for its eventual successes and failures.

Materials:

  1. How the Civil Rights Bill is Being Subverted in Mississippi
  2. A Comparative Review of Public and Private Enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  3. The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Activities:

Activity 1: This activity should take place after the lecture.  Students should have an understanding of SNCC and the part it played in the movement for this legislation, as well as the context in which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was created.

Break students into 6 groups, and assign each group one of the following sections of The Civil Rights Act of 1964:

  1. Title I, (2)
  2. Title III, section 301
  3. Title VII, section 703, (a), (b), (c)
  4. Title VII, section 705, (a), (g)
  5. Title VII, section 706, (a)
  6. Title VIII

Have the students read their sections and discuss the following questions within their groups:

  1. What are the main points of this section?
  2. Does this section reflect the goals of the organizations discussed yesterday?  How might it meet or fail to meet the expectations of SNCC?
  3. What might you hypothesize about the implementation of this section?  Do you think it was immediately effective?  Why or why not?

Allow students 10 minutes to discuss.  Choose one student from each group to summarize their section and briefly outline what was discussed in the group.  The goal of this activity is to both provide the students with a thorough understanding of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to introduce the idea that legislation is not just about creation, but instead also about implementation.

Activity 2: This should be the first activity in the second class period. Provide students with Section IV of “A Comparative Review of Public and Private Enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  Ask students to read individually.  After 5-10 minutes, come together as a class and discuss the following:

  1. What are the main points of this section?
  2. How does this support or contradict your hypotheses about the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?  Do you think that the sections you summarized in the previous activity could be implemented based on your knowledge now?

The goal of this activity is to provide the students with information about the efforts to enforce the act of 1964.  This activity focuses on the opinions and hypotheses of the students in order to suggest that legislation relies upon the opinions of the people for implementation to occur.  This highlights that though the legislation exists, public opinion still plays a large role in its success.

Before the final activity, briefly summarize the idea of coalition politics in the text “Shall We Overcome? Transcending Race, Class, and Ideology Through Interest Convergence.”  Suggest that the students think of the motives of the federal government and how this may be reflected in the implementation of the act.

Activity 3: For the final activity, read to the students the primary source, “How The Civil Rights Bill Is Being Subverted In Mississippi.”  Each student should have his or her own copy of the document.  Ask the students to underline anything they think is important as you read out loud.  Ask the following questions:

  1. What sections did you find interesting, and why?
  2. Think back to the discussion of SNCC and the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  What do you think were SNCC’s feelings about this document?
  3. Why did implementation fail?
  4. Would you consider the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a success or failure?  For whom?  Why?
  5. Does this have any implications for your lives today?

Discuss.  The goal of this activity is for the students to formulate opinions about the power and motives of the federal government, and how this may be reflected in the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Additional Sources:

Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Cashin, Sheryll D. “Shall We Overcome? Transcending Race, Class, and Ideology Through Interest Convergence,” St. John’s Law Review: Vol. 79: Iss. 2, Article (2005): 253-291.

Levy, Martin L. “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century.

Standards:

  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  2. Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
  3. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  4. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
  5. Students compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.

___________________________

1 Clayborne Carson, In Struggle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 9.
2 Carson, 19.
3 Carson, 142.
4 Martin L. Levy, “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century.
5 Levy
6 Levy
7 Levy

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