Important Civil Rights Legislation

Black community leaders and organizations utilized many different strategies to push the Civil Rights Movement forward. One of the most effective tools they used was the law. One of the first major legal victories was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a landmark case in which the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that school segregation was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The case overturned the separate but equal doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson that relied on the idea that segregated facilities were equal and thus legal.

On August 27, 1962, Congress passed the 24th Amendment, which outlawed poll taxes for federal elections. Historically, poll taxes had been used to disenfranchise African Americans (meaning preventing them from exercising their right to vote) by requiring them to pay a tax while exempting poor whites from the tax. The 24th Amendment ended that practice for federal elections, but it did not apply to state and local elections, nor did it apply to other tactics used to disenfranchise African Americans.

Proposed by President Kennedy but signed by President Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law on July 2, 1964. The act was a comprehensive and crucial piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in regards to employment, schools, the right to vote, and access to public places. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had already announced that segregated schools were illegal, the Civil Rights Act was an important step towards desegregation in all walks of life

On March 7, 1965, voting rights activists, who had been peacefully marching through Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, suffered from extreme violence by state troopers, whose brutality was broadcasted on television. This outraged many people, and in response, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.

While the 24th Amendment prohibited poll taxes for federal elections, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the use of literary tests as a requirement for voting and directed the Attorney General to challenge the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. As a result of this law, voter turnout among African American voters increased significantly, especially in the South where voter suppression was rampant. For instance, in Mississippi, black voter turnout increased from 6% in 1964 to 59% just five years later.