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8 Key Laws That Advanced Civil Rights

Since the abolishment of slavery, the U.S. government has passed several laws to address discrimination and racism against African Americans.
martin luther king jr, civil rights, civil rights leader, black history, president lyndon johnson, dr. king, 1964, civil rights act

The "peculiar institution” of slavery was abolished nearly a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence called for freedom and equality for all in 1776. But it took another century before landmark legislation would begin to address basic civil rights for African Americans.

This slow progress was the product of decades of work amongst anti-slavery constitutionalists, activists and abolitionists. They agitated in Congress, the courts and the streets. The fruits of their labor were not enacted immediately and were often foiled by a highly adaptable architecture of discrimination. Poll taxes and literacy tests hampered African Americans from voting in the aftermath of the Civil War. Likewise, the equal access promised in the 1960s did not mark the end of de-facto segregation.

Between 1865 and 1968, much was on the agenda: the abolition of slavery, extending legal protections for the emancipated and their descendants, birthright citizenship and ending segregation in public facilities.

1. 13th Amendment

When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, he was not ending slavery or declaring it illegal. The executive order was a wartime measure that promised slaves in the Confederacy their freedom should they make it to Union lines. It even purposefully overlooked slaves in those border states that had not joined the Confederacy. Instead, the 13th Amendment of December 6, 1865, abolished slavery.

Still, African Americans were vulnerable to subjugation. “The South was passing so-called black codes that effectively tried to re-enslave freed persons, creating a form of neo-slavery by criminalizing Black behavior,” says Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center of Constitutional Rights. “So, there were statutes that prohibited vulgarities or spitting, or if you did not have employment, you could be imprisoned and then leased as labor to whites in a form of debt bondage.”

2. Civil Rights Act of 1866

The first Civil Rights Act established that all those born in the United States were to be granted American citizenship. It was a radical notion for its time, seeking to grant birthright citizenship and all the associated rights and protections, helping to counter the black codes of 1865.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson, director of the Center for Civil Rights and Social Justice at Emory University says the Civil Rights Act of 1866 also sought to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1857 Dred Scott case that Black people weren’t U.S. citizens and had no legal rights. Opposition to the act soon followed. 

“President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation on the grounds that it discriminated against whites. As early as the 19th century, advancement in the condition of people of color was seen or perceived to be an affront or harm to whites,” says Hutchinson.

3. 14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment, ratified on July 9, 1868, forbid state governments, not just the national government, from abridging the rights and privileges enjoyed by citizenship. Congress now had the power to enforce and protect citizens from state and federal encroachment. However, the 14th Amendment did not promise political rights, which the next amendment addressed.

4. 15th Amendment

The 15th Amendment expressly banned the states and U.S. government from denying citizens the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Ratified on February 3, 1870, the monumental piece of legislation also gave Congress the power to enforce legislation.

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These rights were still curtailed when states devised their own voter qualifications, like literacy tests and other regulations. These onerous requirements were sometimes disguised as neutral but were enforced in an entirely arbitrary and discriminatory way.

“With respect to voting, the laws did not say Blacks cannot vote; instead they imposed literacy tests against Blacks, asking things like, 'How many bubbles are in this bar of soap? How many jellybeans are in this jar?' The Klan and Southern sheriffs would terrorize Blacks who tried to register to vote through violence, so there was almost no Black voting in the Deep South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” says Azmy.

5. Civil Rights Act of 1871

The Civil Rights Act of 1871—also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act or the Enforcement Act—empowered the federal government to use military force against people and organizations that conspire to violate the constitutional rights of other citizens. This act targeted racial terrorism in the South (particularly in South Carolina) and attempted to dismantle not only the KKK and other white supremacist organizations, but also organizations like rifle clubs that threatened or used violence.

“The period from 1865 and 1871 was one of the most dramatic and radical conversations about freedom and equality probably in the history of humankind,” says Azmy. "During Reconstruction, the United States government became fully committed to reconstructing the South in the northern image, and an image based on equality, which included U.S. troops in the South to enforce laws and protect Blacks. It created very significant proportions of Black representation in southern statehouses and produced three Black senators and multiple congresspersons from Mississippi and Alabama in an 11-year period."

6. Civil Rights Act of 1964

This behemoth legislation is a benchmark act that banned labor discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, it also ended racial segregation in public facilities, public education and in federally funded programs.

“This statute, along with more aggressive judicial enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education, helped to accelerate desegregation in southern schools,” says Hutchinson. “When the legislation passed, less than 3 percent of Blacks attended schools with Whites in the South, despite the fact that Brown had been decided 10 years earlier. In the decade following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, southern schools became the most integrated in the U.S.”

7. Voting Rights Act of 1965

In addition to outright violence and intimidation that existed at the grassroots level, states developed an array of tools to prevent African Americans from voting: the grandfather clause, literacy tests and poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 forcefully addressed these issues.

According to Hutchinson, a key nuance of the legislation includes banning, not only specific prejudicial policies (such as literacy tests), but more generally any policies that could potentially have a racially disproportionate effect.

In addition to enforcement rights, the act requires that states with histories of discrimination receive a green light from the federal government before any changes to their voting practices. (In 2013, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder gutted these protections arguing that they were "based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.")

8. Civil Rights Act of 1968

A week after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, was signed into law and banned discrimination in housing.

“The Fair Housing Act bans discrimination in public housing and in certain private units. The statute covers actions that discriminate by impact as well as intent. Thus, it has been used to strike down arguably race-neutral policies like zoning laws that make housing unaffordable for persons of color in a particular jurisdiction,” says Hutchinson.

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