The Historical Purport of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Christina Evelyn

Introduction The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88–352, 78 Stat. 241, enacted July 2, 1964) is understood to be a landmark civil rights and labor law moment in the United States, because it, for the first time, outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.[i] The Act put a legal end to unequal application of voter registration requirements and to racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public or in public accommodations. The latter meant that any institutions or facilities paid for with public funds, through taxes commonly drawn from all citizens, could not discriminate in the use of these on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin (

Argument Following the point of departure of most public school history textbooks, and indeed, most presentations of civics and history by the dominant culture in the U.S, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is understood to be the outgrowth of the give-and-take between public discourse and governmental institutions, between the expression of needs on the part of the populace, the citizenry, on one hand, and the response of the democratic institutions, the U.S. governmental bodies, on the other. In the words of Edwards and Wattenberg, legislation such as the Civil Rights Act is typical of “The process by which policy comes into being and evolves over time. People’s interests, problems, and concerns create political issues for government policymakers. These issues shape policy, which in turn impacts people, generating more interests, problems, and concerns.”[ii]

This essay utilizes the method and theory of historical materialism to argue that politics is the concentrated expression of economics (Lenin, 1917), that war is the continuation of politics by other means (Von Clausewitz, 1918), and that the US government and its laws are the formal reflection of a state power (the United States of America), which responds to the organized force of the people only when this force threatens the basic economic interests of the class represented by this state. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, from this perspective, is the outer most face, the form of a struggle to achieve human rights.

The political and economic content of the 100 years following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) are defined by the move from de jure slavery to de facto slavery. To the same degree, the 53 years following the passage of the legislation today known as The Civil Rights Act of 1964 constitute a continuation of the identical political and economic oppression of African Americans which is basic to (defining of) the white supremacist capitalist system.

Thesis The waging of the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960’s -70’s (BLM), and the current iteration of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) prove that the legislation was merely an effort of those in power to slow down the revolution to overthrow the white supremacist system. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not the goal of the African American people’s fight for human rights. It did not mark the resolution of the struggle for freedom. This fight continues today.

History: War is politics by other means There are four major wars which form the foundation of the history which led to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: (1) The genocidal campaign perpetrated by the European invasion of the Americas, resulting in the annihilation of dozens of native American nations and peoples, millions of indigenous people of the Americas (Stannard, 1993). (2) The kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans by the European imperialists. (3) The war of independence waged by the colonists against Great Britain which resulted in the creation of the country called the United States of America.

Indeed, far from the fairytale served up by the authors of our previously-mentioned textbook that the “People’s interests, problems, and concerns create political issues for government policymakers.…” (Edwards, 2013), etc., etc. — such which forms the ideological reflection of the political and economic developments listed above — it was genocide, the slaughter of millions of people, the forcing of millions of people to labor for free (the slave system itself, slavery itself, is an act of war waged by the slavers against the enslaved), and the consolidation of political and economic power in the hands of the White American nation represented by the war of independence against Great Britain, which are the foundation for the legislation passed 200 years later.

(4) Far from the “give-and-take of democratic institutions” mentioned above, the so-called Civil War, in which more than 560,000 people were killed, was in fact a revolution to overthrow a vicious, anti-human social system (Baptist, 2014). There is nothing about “democratic policy making” or civility in the erasure of 560,000 people off the planet. The slavocracy had to be overthrown through the bloodiest war, in terms of US casualties, in which this country has ever been engaged. That the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was the precursor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in terms of it being a formal change, is proven by the next 100 years of de facto slavery, and the need for the Black Liberation Movement of the 1950’s-1970’s (known by the dominant culture’s history tracts as “the Civil Rights Movement”).

Politics is the concentrated expression of economics In a revelatory contribution to the historiography of the white supremacist system that is the United States of America, professor of history Edward Baptist thoroughly documents the monumental role of slavery in the creation of the US economy as the #1 economy in the history of the world (Baptist, 2014). He shows that this act of war (politics by other means) waged by one nation, White America, against another, African America, formed the basis for the most colossal accumulation of capital in the history of capitalism, resulting in the United States being the most powerful economic system in the world today. “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that [White] people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth” (Baptist, 2014).

As Karl Marx observed,

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production (Marx, 1887, p703).

Linking that history to the era of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Mao Zedong further pointed out: “The evil system of colonialism and imperialism arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes [sic] and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the black people” (Mao, 1963).

Foundations Rocked Looked at from a world-historic perspective, the so-called Civil War, or more accurately, the second American Revolution, the one which overthrew the social and economic system of chattel slavery, was a much more significant revolution than was the war of independence from Great Britain. It, nevertheless, did not result in the economic and political emancipation of African Americans. Rather, the legal, “de jure” emancipation was eclipsed by the de facto continuation of slavery. The most authoritative book to be written in the last 20 years regarding de facto slavery of the 100 years following the Civil War, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, was written by Douglas Blackmon (2009). In it he chronicles the re-arrangement, in the face of the changed laws, and the defeat of the slavers, of the economic system of the south to continue to exploit the labor of a shackled population. One example he thoroughly documents is the forced labor at prison plantations. He describes one of them, Slope Plantation, in these words:

Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope. Imprisoned in what was then the most advanced city of the South, guarded by whipping bosses employed by the most iconic example of the modern corporation emerging in the gilded North, they were slaves in all but name (Blackmon, 2009).

In another example, the railroads which formed the basis of the greatest transportation system in the early twentieth century were built by post Civil War slave labor:

It also became apparent how inextricably this quasi-slavery of the twentieth century was rooted in the nascent industrial slavery that had begun to flourish in the last years before the Civil War. The same men who built railroads with thousands of slaves and proselytized for the use of slaves in southern factories and mines in the 1850s were also the first to employ forced African American labor in the 1870s (Blackmon, 2009).

His expose is of a system basic to the lives of Africans in America, but hidden to the rest of the world through legal veils. Blackmon concludes,

A world in which the seizure and sale of a black man — even a black child — was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary had reemerged. Millions of blacks lived in that shadow — as forced laborers or their family members, or African Americans in terror of the system’s caprice. The practice would not fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II, when profound global forces began to touch the lives of black Americans for the first time since the era of the international abolition movement a century earlier, prior to the Civil War (Blackmon, 2009).

Colonialism Torn Down This continued slavery gave birth to the Black Liberation Movement of the 1950’s — 1970’s. While white supremacist history books present WWII as the fight for democracy against fascism, the people of the world know it as a continuation of Europe and the US’s fight over which countries (Germany, Spain, Great Britain, France, the United States, Japan) would rule over the nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Again, US history books give a footnote to the fact that fully one-quarter of the world’s population who make up People’s China, removed themselves from the colonialist system during WWII and established an independent socialist state (1949). All over Asia, Africa and Latin America, wars for independence and national liberation were being waged. Dozens and then scores of these wars were resulting in political independence. The formation of the United Nations (1948) soon reflected these changes, and the votes in UN General Assemblies were now dominated by the united voices of newly independent African, Latin American and Asian nations (1950’s-1970’s).

What most White historians in the US call the Civil Rights Movement was in fact a movement which had the same purport, dignity and righteous content as these other wars of national liberation. That the southern part of the movement, the one favored by the US authorities because of its “turn the other cheek” profile, was the real content of the liberation movement is belied by a number of factors: (1) Organizations like the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Alabama-based Black Panthers for Self Defense (1964), and the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP had to form themselves into guerrilla militias to fight the violent repression of the southern authorities (headed by the Ku Klux Klan). (2) The Martin Luther King-type leadership increasingly came out in support of the armed revolutions waged by the peoples of African countries, and the people of Vietnam. (3) The US authorities had to assassinate MLK, the most peaceful representative of the “Civil Rights Movement.” (4) The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) changed its named from “Nonviolent” to “National” before MLK was murdered. Only a mindset thoroughly infected with white supremacist assumptions could separate this liberation movement from those of the other anti-colonial liberation movements raging all over the world, and reduce it to the “Civil Rights Movement” and its fruit to “the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Indeed, fully four years after the passing of this “historic, path breaking legislation” called the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Mao Zedong, the foremost political leader of the largest country on planet Earth, pointed out:

Some days ago, Martin Luther King, the Afro-American clergyman, was suddenly assassinated by the U.S. imperialists. Martin Luther King was an exponent of nonviolence. Nevertheless, the U.S. imperialists did not on that account show any tolerance toward him, but used counter-revolutionary violence and killed him in cold blood. This has taught the broad masses of the Black people in the United States a profound lesson. It has touched off a new storm in their struggle against violent repression sweeping well over a hundred cities in the United States, a storm such as has never taken place before in the history of that country. It shows that an extremely powerful revolutionary force is latent in the more than twenty million Black Americans (1968).

How significant could this legislation have been if the US authorities felt they had to assassinate one of the foremost leaders of the African American people fully four years after its passage?

To put this point in positive terms: Yes, today this analyst can sit on a bus and not have to get up because a White person wants to sit down. Yes, today, this scribe can sit at a lunch counter and eat food next to White people. Yes, this nursing student is allowed in nursing school, and she’s allowed to vote. However, (1) African Americans were fighting for much more than these formal changes; (2) The US government was trying to save face, and slow down the momentum of our freedom struggle, while the world looked on in horror at the way this government treated us; (3) the formal equality “achieved” by the passage of this legislation has not changed the actual second class status of African Americans in this country; and (4) just as with the reversal of the verdict of “the Civil War” and the re-institution of de facto slavery, so too has much of the Civil Rights Act been made irrelevant by subsequent repression of the Black population of this country.

Malcolm X said “we are fighting for human rights, not civil rights.” The goal of being able to sit next to a White person at a lunch counter was eclipsed by the desire for self-determined independence from the white supremacist system. That Malcolm X was nine months pregnant with the Black Panther Party when he was unceremoniously gunned down by the same US authorities who killed MLK is further proof that Black Americans were interested in far more than the “path breaking legislation” was offering. That the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was derivative of self-determined change, and in no way the motor behind change, is proven by the fact that Black folk waged a much fiercer struggle for freedom after it was passed. MLK came out openly for the liberation of the Vietnamese people from US imperialist domination. The Black Panther Party became the most powerful and popular liberation organization among Black folk, and then among all other oppressed people in the United States by 1968. Producing serve-the-people programs, where folk self-determined what they needed and provided it for themselves, was regarded as a major threat to the U.S. “way of life.” Indeed, the FBI termed the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the US” (Churchill, 2002). How could the Civil Rights Act of 1964 be of any genuine significance in a country whose leaders think that serving children breakfast is subversive? In a genuine reflection of the goals of the Black Liberation Movement, Eldridge Cleaver, then Minster of Information of the Black Panther Party, stated plainly:

Breakfast for children pulls people out of the system and organizes them into an alternative. Black children who go to school hungry each morning have been organized into their poverty, and the Panther Program liberates them, frees, them from this aspect of their poverty. This is liberation in practice…. If we can understand Breakfast for Children, can we not understand Lunch for Children, and Dinner for Children, and Medical Care for Children? And if we can understand that, why can’t we understand not only a People’s Park, but People’s Housing, and People’s Transportation, and People’s Industry and People’s Banks? And then can’t we also understand a People’s Government? (Foner, 1995)

Celebrated author, Michelle Alexander, has chronicled in her famous book, the New Jim Crow, how it is that slavery is now alive and well in the form of a prison system which incarcerates more people than any other in the world, and more people than any other prison system in the history of humankind; a prison system with an overwhelmingly Black male population; one in which those incarcerated labor for free, producing products for the market place for corporations who run these for-profit establishments. This is a continuation of slavery.

Conclusion The class or nation in power is the one which determines how reality is named. Naming the Civil Rights Act as a “historic” “ground breaking” example of “democracy at work” is the propaganda of those in power. We the people engage in our freedom movement independently of these forms, legal or otherwise. This essay is part of the voice of the people. That an openly white supremacist corporate leader has been elected president of the US is proof that the Civil Rights Act does not determine who is free and who is under attack in this country. That police are routinely executing Black men in the street at record numbers proves that a law written in 1964 does not determine the course of human history. That we still have to fight for the right to employment, and to not be incarcerated at record rates in for-profit prisons is proof that the fight against slavery continues.


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Baptist, Edward. The Half has Never been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Basic Books; 1 edition, 2014.

Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Anchor, 2009.

Churchill, Ward. Agents of repression: the FBI’s secret wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston: South End Press. 2002.

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Mao Zedong. “Statement Supporting the American Negroes in their just struggle against racial discrimination by U.S. imperialism.” Peking Review, Volume 9, #33, Aug. 12, pp. 12–13, 1966.

Mao Zedong. “Statement by Comrade Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, in support of the Afro-American struggle against violent repression.” Peking Review, pp. 5–6, April 16, 1968.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Volume I. 1974.

Stannard, David. American holocaust: Columbus and the conquest of the New World. Oxford University Press. 1993.

Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Trans. Col. J.J. Graham. London: Keagan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1918. “Civil Rights Act (1964).” 1964 (accessed April 22, 2017).

[i] An act 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, July 2, 1964; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives

[ii] George C. Edwards, Martin P. Wattenberg and Robert L. Lineberry. Government in America: People, Politics and Policy. Pearson Custom Publishing, 2013.