After the Civil Rights Act, Now What?

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

The passage of the Civil Rights in 1964 gave African Americans hope for equality in America.  The act allowed for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to initiate lawsuits on behalf of individuals who were discriminated against on the bases of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in public accommodations.  Despite all the good intensions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans still faced discrimination in many public spaces across the country.

The Press Releases, Speeches, Testimonies, and Other Records (NAID 5605357) series consists of information released by the DOJ for public knowledge.  These records concerns the activities and accomplishments of the DOJ, as well as information on cases relating to organized crime, kidnappings, prisons, antitrust litigation, voting rights, and civil rights.  Several of the press releases following the signing of the Civil Rights Act showed how the DOJ determined whether or not to pursue a discrimination complaint or how they resolved these types of violations.

The first case filed with the DOJ under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 concerned the discrimination of African Americans in various restaurants and motels in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The complaint brought to the Northern District of Alabama Federal Court by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy showed that there was “a pattern or practice of resistance to equal treatment in public accommodations.”  The public release for July 29, 1964 detailing the violations are displayed below:

The DOJ press releases were also used to disclose information of cases involving civil rights violations, including murder.  During the summer of 1964, students from all over the country traveled to the state of Mississippi in an attempt to register African Americans to vote.  Freedom Summer was a dangerous time for these activists who tried to uplift the southern black population, while facing intimidation from resistant white Mississippians.  As a result of this activity, three young men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner paid the ultimate price when they disappeared on June 21, 1964.  Below is the press release from August 4, 1964 announcing the discovery of the bodies of the slain civil rights workers.

Much of the violence that occurred in the South was due to African Americans attempting to register and to vote.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a provision for voting restrictions.  In the press release for July 24, 1964, DOJ filed suit in the Circuit Courts of two counties in Mississippi.  Holmes County and Marshall County subjected African Americans to “unreasonable questions, procedures, and treatment,” when trying to participate in state elections.

The Civil Rights Act also protected individuals whose violations did not necessarily make the national news.  The case of Lemuel A. Penn, an educator and Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserve, who was killed by Klan members in Georgia, was announced on August 6, 1964.  The DOJ and FBI worked together to find justice on behalf of this American citizen with the immediate arrest of the four men who committed the murder.  This case was one of many that demonstrated that several white southerners were not willing to accept the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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