US celebrates 50 years of civil rights

Equal rights: Much has been achieved since 1964, but for many the fight for equality continues.

It is now five decades since President Johnson managed to pass the Civil Rights Act in a bid to end centuries of discrimination against black people. How should we celebrate its legacy?

Fifty years ago, on 2nd July 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed his name on a sheet of paper. In doing so, he overturned centuries of racism by outlawing discrimination on the grounds of colour, sex or religion. As he told the nation, ‘its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions, divisions that have lasted all too long.’

The signing of the Civil Rights Act was one the most significant moments in America’s struggle for racial equality. This had first began to gain traction in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to stand on a crowded bus just so that one white person could sit. At the time, laws in America’s southern states mandated racial segregation in public places such as schools and on transport.

Rosa Parks inspired the civil rights movement, and as it grew, activists began boycotts of transport and defiant sit-ins in segregated areas. An iconic moment occurred in 1963, when leading activist Martin Luther King Jr addressed 250,000 supporters in Washington and delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech, calling for equality.

President Kennedy worked to enshrine racial equality in law, but he was assassinated in November 1963. His successor, President Johnson, continued his efforts. Opponents did what they could to filibuster the vote, but after herculean efforts and the longest debate in Congress’s history, the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Discrimination persisted, with race riots occurring that year in cities from New York to Chicago. Many tried to find ways to circumvent the ban, such as making public libraries members only. Yet in the long run, the act paved the way towards making the US a more equal society.

Fifty years later, the man with Johnson’s job is black. President Obama says without the act, he would not be in the White House today. Yet racial inequality is still rife: black people are twice as likely to be unemployed than whites and are three times more likely to be expelled from school. So how should we remember the act’s legacy?

Mixed achievement

Some say that with racial inequality still widespread in America, the Civil Rights Act has failed. There have been numerous disturbances due to continuing inequality, and riots occurred in 1992 after police were filmed brutally beating Rodney King. Despite black people constituting 12% of the US population, almost half the two million in prisons are black.

Yet others argue that attitudes have changed enormously in the last 50 years thanks to the Civil Rights Act. The vast majority of Americans now abhor racism. America has its first black president, something unimaginable when the act was passed. The US still has its problems, but we should celebrate the act for transforming the country.

You Decide

  1. Should we celebrate the Civil Rights Act’s anniversary even if inequality still exists?
  2. ‘Racism and prejudice will never be truly overcome.’ Do you agree?


  1. In groups, imagine that you are a black person living in pre-1964 America. Come up with as many ideas as you can about how to improve your situation and bring about change.
  2. Using the links in Become An Expert for guidance, make a timeline of the key dates in the civil rights movement.

Some People Say...

“Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.’Senator Dirksen (based on Victor Hugo)”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are we celebrating if racism still exists?
Segregation is long over, and overt statements of racism are less prevalent, but there is still much more to do. Some say racism has just become more subtle and negative stereotypes often persist. A study found 89% of black women in films will swear and act offensively, whereas only 17% of white women are portrayed this way.
What were the other effects of the Civil Rights Act?
Johnson was a Democrat and on signing the act said ‘I think we have just delivered the south to the Republican Party.’ Many in the south did not like the ending of their privileges, so turned to the Republicans, who promised them greater control of local affairs. This split the US between a Republican south and a Democrat north, a division which is still strong today.

Word Watch

Rosa Parks
The bus was divided into a white and black section. When the white section was full, the bus driver told Rosa to stand to let a white person sit. She refused and was arrested.
The ‘Jim Crow’ laws, which were enforced in the states that had supported the Confederates during the civil war, meant separate and inferior services for black people.
When black people peacefully occupied a place they were banned from in protest, such as restaurants and swimming pools. Often protesters were brutally attacked.
John F. Kennedy was shot as he was driven through Dallas, Texas, in November 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder, but he was shot dead before reaching his trial.
The act of deliberately debating a bill for so long that there is not enough time in which to have a vote.
Rodney King
Los Angeles police were caught on tape beating a black man, Rodney King, who was lying on the ground. The policemen were tried in court, and after their acquital violent riots spread across the city, leading to 53 deaths and over 2,000 injuries.

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