The Untold Story behind the Civil Rights Act

June 30, 2014
Rep. Martha Griffiths stands in front of the Capitol.

Rep. Martha Griffiths stands in front of the Capitol.

Although closely associated with the movement bearing the same name, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not just prohibit discrimination based on race. Passed on July 2, 1964, the act outlawed discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.

It is hard for younger Americans to imagine the country that existed before the Civil Rights Act. The legislation revolutionized American society, barring segregation in places such as public schools and restaurants and on public transportation. Through the Title VII provision, it also outlawed employment discrimination, and Title I removed voter registration requirements that were not equally applied to all people.

The story behind how gender became a part of the bill is a fascinating one. Not surprisingly, it involves an AAUW member, Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-MI), the first woman to serve on the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. Sex was not included in the original wording of the Civil Rights Act. But Griffiths planned on introducing an amendment to include women.

Rep. Howard Worth Smith (D-VA), then-chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, had his own plan to add a similar amendment. At first glance, Smith might seem like a champion of women. But dig a little deeper and you will learn that Smith wasn’t doing this for the sake of gender equity. A segregationist, he was vehemently opposed to civil rights legislation of any kind. Including sex in the bill was a ploy on his part, because he believed that it would make the legislation so controversial that it couldn’t possibly pass.

Biding her time, Griffiths held off from introducing the amendment herself because she knew that Smith could easily gather the 100 Southern coalition votes needed to move things forward. When Smith introduced his amendment, the chamber reportedly erupted into jeers and laughter. Griffiths spoke: “I presume that if there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second-class sex, the laughter would have proved it.” She scolded her fellow lawmakers. The bill ended up passing with language including sex, thanks in large part to Martha Griffiths’ efforts at securing the required number of votes.

Howard Smith’s biographer, Bruce Dierenfield, has written, “Along with Betty Friedan, Smith must be credited with giving the modern feminist movement a powerful, if unanticipated, push forward.” I guess sometimes good things come about in the strangest of ways.

Griffiths continued to champion equality for women throughout her almost 20-year career in the House. She was known as the “mother of the ERA” for her role in resurrecting the Equal Rights Amendment and guiding it through the U.S. House of Representatives. Remaining in politics well into the later years of her life, she was elected lieutenant governor of Michigan for two terms beginning in 1982.

Today, the work of Griffiths lives on in her varied accomplishments in support of equality for women. AAUW of Michigan grants the Martha Griffiths Equity Award to a person who has “promoted equity for women and girls in Michigan in a demonstrable manner.”

Editor’s note: Passing the Civil Rights Act was the culmination of decades of painstaking, life-threatening work by advocates who were fighting the horrors of racism and other forms of discrimination. This AAUW story is just one part of what it took to pass the Civil Rights Act. When we remember this law’s legacy, we solemnly recognize another largely untold story: the story of the African American women who played an invaluable but somewhat unrecognized role leading the civil rights movement: women like Claudette Colvin, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and Fannie Lou Hamer, among many others.



Claudette Colvin

Before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin Stayed in Her Bus Seat

More than nine months before Rosa Parks’ arrest, a 15-year-old high school student was taken into custody when she refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Photograph of the Civil Rights March on Washington, on August 28, 1963.

Honoring the Women of the Civil Rights Movement

The success of the civil rights movement hinged also on the selfless dedication and hard work of a host of women whose names are considerably less familiar today.

During his signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shook hands with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (United Press International/ File 1964)

We Shall Overcome

Rather than being a historical footnote, the Civil Rights Act is at the core of civil rights legislation and judicial decisions to this day.

By:   |   June 30, 2014


  1. […] 2, 2014, marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of […]

  2. […] The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not just prohibit discrimination based on race. Gender is also a crucial part of the bill, and there's a fascinating story behind how it got there.  […]

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