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Government responses to social movements: lesson overview

A high-level overview of federal actions to address discrimination on the basis of race and sex.
In response to pressure from civil rights groups, in the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government took action to address discrimination on the basis of race and sex.

Key terms

Civil Rights Act of 1964Legislation barring discrimination in public accommodations, employment, or voting, on the basis of color, national origin, race, religion, or sex. The Civil Rights Act also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor and enforce the law.
Title IXA provision of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prevents schools and universities receiving federal funding from discriminating against female students.
Voting Rights Act of 1965Legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in voting, including the use of literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses.

Cases to know

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) - Oliver Brown was the father of Linda, an African American third grader who was forced to attend a segregated elementary school. Along with other African American families in the area, Brown sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Under the leadership of future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund sought to prove with this case that segregated public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
In its decision, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling that “in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place.” This ruling was a crucial victory for the civil rights movement, and later cases challenging segregation built on the precedent set in Brown.

Key takeaways

Competing policymaking interests - The federal courts cleared the way for civil rights reform through rulings in a series of cases, starting with Brown v. Board of Education, that invalidated segregation as a violation of the equal protection clause.
After civil rights demonstrations such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President John F. Kennedy and successor Lyndon B. Johnson made passing civil rights legislation a key part of their agendas. Despite opposition from white southern representatives, Congress followed by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, and other demographic factors.

Review questions

What motivated the federal government to pass civil rights legislation?
Why did civil rights groups like the NAACP originally focus on winning court cases to advance equal rights, rather than attempting to influence Congress?

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