Essay — From the June 2014 issue

The Civil Rights Act’s Unsung Victory

And how it changed the South

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When I was a kid, in the early Sixties, my mother and father meticulously prepared our car for holiday journeys from our home in Washington, D.C., to my birthplace in Columbia, South Carolina. They packed coolers filled with sodas, deviled eggs, chicken wings, sandwiches of all varieties, cookies, and candy. I thought of this at the time as an effort to make the eight-hour ride into a party for me and my older brother and younger sister. Only later did I learn that their preparations stemmed from fear. Having fled the Jim Crow South in the Fifties, my parents were seeking to limit our contact with filling stations, restaurants, motels, and other public accommodations along the way, where their children might be snarled at by white cashiers and attendants. As I matured, I saw that once we crossed the Potomac River and ventured into Virginia, we encountered a terrain that filled my parents with dread.

My father was particularly burdened by the drive. He became noticeably nervous at the sight of police officers. Over the years several of them pulled him over. They did not charge him with any infraction. Rather, they stopped him seemingly out of curiosity and a desire to test his willingness to accept the etiquette of white supremacy. Their colloquies went something like this:

“That’s a nice car you’re driving, boy.”

“Thank you, officer. Have I done something wrong?”

“Not from what I can see just yet. I notice you’ve got out-of-state plates. You know, we do things different down here. You do know that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Boy, you do know that, right?”


“Okay. You’re free to go.”

The drive took us into territory that featured signs distinguishing “colored women” from “white ladies,” signs indicating whether a business served blacks, signs designating which toilets or water fountains or entrances African Americans were permitted to use. In those days it was legal throughout the Deep South for privately owned places of public accommodation to exclude people on the basis of race — colored not allowed — or to discriminate against them in other ways — colored served only in the rear. This reality prompted Victor H. Green, of Harlem, to publish The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to establishments throughout the United States that served black travelers. He understood the anxiety that beset African Americans as they sought to obtain elementary decencies on the nation’s highways.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which became law fifty years ago this summer, decisively altered this dismal situation. The origins of the act reside outside the lived experience of most Americans, which makes remembering and assessing this benchmark all the more important. Americans should know why there was a need for such a law, and we should understand both the constitutional predicate on which it is grounded and the reason why one of its seemingly least controversial features — the provision banning racial discrimination in privately owned places of public accommodation — was once heavily contested. We should also recognize echoes of the fights from ’64 in current disputes over affirmative action, health-care expansion, and a host of other political issues.

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is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University. He is working on a book about the legal history of the civil rights revolution.

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