Regional Reactions to the Civil Rights Act of 1964

By Mairin Daubert

            The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a monumental piece of legislation that outlawed the prevalent forms of discrimination against racial minorities and women. It ended unfair and unequal voter registration requirements and prohibited racial segregation in schools, workplaces and all public facilities. The act has been called the “most far-reaching and comprehensive law in support of racial equality ever enacted by Congress” (Pierce). Due to the regional differences demographically, historically and therefore politically, the Northern and Southern regions of the United States had opposing reactions to the passage of this act. Because of the two regions’ historical differences, their political majorities and general reaction to the controversial Civil Rights Act of 1964 were generally polarized.

In order to fully understand the state of politics in both the American North and South, it is necessary to look at their historical backgrounds; historically, the regions differ greatly. The economy of the South was traditionally based on agriculture, due to its fertile land and the profitable nature of the trade. Therefore, the South was an agrarian region that relied on slavery to expand and achieve success in an agricultural economy. Southern reliance on slavery in turn formed a culture of racism and inequality deeply engrained in the society and culture of the South. The area would not have flourished or succeeded economically without the free labor that slavery provided. This almost total dependence on one institution shown by the South in the 19th and 20th centuries demonstrates its socioeconomic fragility; without the “peculiar institution” of slavery, the South would have fallen apart both economically and socially. Conversely, the northern part of the United States industrialized quickly, constructing large cities and relying on developing technologies and paid labor to flourish.

Along with the agrarian society and dependence on slavery in the South, the Civil War is also a key historical element when it comes to looking at voting trends in the North and South. The war created even more tension and dissonance between the North and the South and demonstrated the vastly different political views that the regions held. Northerners and Southerners disagreed so strongly about slavery that they engaged in the bloodiest war in the United States’ history. Politically, the outcomes of the Civil War included the emancipation of millions of slaves and the preservation of the union. Due to the South’s history with slavery, racial relations in the region were historically and are today generally worse than those in the North. With so much of the South being accustomed to the institution of slavery, white Southerners largely did not recognize blacks’ personhood, regardless of freeman or slave status. Rather, blacks were thought of as objects, and usually treated as such.

The typical relationship between blacks and whites in the South was unequal in its nature; blacks addressed whites as “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” cleaned their homes, were caretakers to their children and cooks for their meals. This was the expected relationship between the two groups during the 19th century, a period marked by extreme white supremacy. Jason Sokol, in his article “White Southerners’ Reactions to the Civil Rights Movement,” says, “the ‘Southern way of life’… contained implications about the region’s racial order — one in which whites wielded power and blacks accommodated. Centuries of slavery and decades of segregation cemented a legal and political system characterized by white dominance” (Sokol). Because of these race relations between blacks and whites and the prevailing attitude of white superiority, the majority of the South as a geographical region was not in favor of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in voting based on race and desegregated all public places, including schools and workplaces. This piece of legislation would end Jim Crow laws, which Southern political institutions had installed as a way to legally discriminate against blacks and force them to use separate facilities in public areas and to victimize them in countless other ways.

Since antebellum times, race relations in the South have differed vastly from those in the North. Andrew Young compares the North and the South in terms of the ways in which race is manifested in politics. He clarifies that “the North was separated geographically, while the South was separated legally.” This distinction is important to keep in mind when considering the differing regional politics of these areas because attitudes and beliefs that are embedded into the legal system have more power than those without legal backing. Lonnie Bunch also speaks to the role that race played in the 1960’s in his article “The Unending Civil War.” He writes, “race and heritage are at the heart of America’s inability to find consensus about the Civil War.” Bunch later references a quote from Abraham Lincoln, which makes clear that slavery played a central role in the war: Lincoln stated that “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All I know is that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war” (quoted in Bunch 19). The fact that the Civil War was fought in large part because the North wanted to abolish slavery, while the South was willing to lose hundreds of thousands of soldiers in order to keep it in place, shows just how diverse the two regions were, especially on the grounds of racial equality.

Following the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century, there began a movement calling for equality of civil rights for all Americans. The North focused on reforming laws and worked towards equality for blacks, while the South tried its hardest to resist civil rights reform. Southern resistance came from the deep-rooted ideals that slavery instilled into society: that blacks were objects that could be owned, not people. Many southerners thought this way and therefore did not support blacks holding the same rights as they themselves held. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 showed how aggressively the North and the South disagreed on the topic of racial equality, and their respective reactions to the act were predictably characteristic. Although support for this civil rights movement was generally stronger in the North than in the South, at times Northerners were unaware of the magnitude of inequality and discrimination that existed in other parts of the country. In the North, support for the movement and the Civil Rights Act was amplified and strengthened by the media’s coverage of the terrible things happening to blacks in the South and across the country and the general inequality seen in the treatment of blacks. For instance, in The American Presidency, David Kozak references the Birmingham race riots and the national media coverage they gained, he says:

Newspaper photographs and evening television reports of the violence in Birmingham brought about an immediate change in national public opinion on civil rights, particularly in the North and the West. The nation had seen first hand the worst aspects of Southern white oppression of blacks. Demands for action began pouring into the White House and the Congress from across the country. (Kozak 6)

Because of the geographical remove between North and South, Northerners often lacked knowledge of the state of race relations in the South during this time period, due to limited access to national news and media. However, events as substantial and socially disturbing as the Birmingham protest violence were influential enough to garner the attention of the entire country. It was this violence that forced President Kennedy to change his stance on civil rights and caused the White House to be “flooded with advice on what form a new administration proposal for civil rights legislation should take” (Kozak 7).

Jason Sokol captures the differing ways in which the entire civil rights movement affected the North and South. He describes the great impact it had on the South when he writes, “the civil rights movement forever altered white Southerners’ everyday lives, upended their traditional attitudes about blacks, and, in some towns, shifted the balance of political power. It stripped the veneers of docility from African Americans and invested them with a new dignity.” While this movement, which included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, monumentally changed the lives of Southerners, its effect on the North was far more understated.

After the Civil Rights Act was passed, the “Great White Switch,” as it is called, was observed as Southern whites began to vote Republican. Conservatives in the South took advantage of the turbulent time following the passage of the act and banded together to convince those Democrats appalled by the passage of the act to turn Republican in order to create a majority in the South. This ‘Southern strategy’ succeeded, causing a rise in the Southern Republican vote. Since the nineteenth century the general trend of political distribution in the United States had showed the North voting largely Republican and the South voting Democratic. The maps depicting the distribution of voting today demonstrate the regional differences in the United States very clearly; generally, the North is colored in blue (Democratic) while the South is red (Republican).

Red States/Blue States

Red States/Blue States


As shown by this map, political loyalties are still greatly regionalized, as they were in 1964.

The South developed as an agrarian region, with strong and enduring economic, social, and cultural ties to slavery. On the other hand, the North industrialized, with little need for the exploitation and free labor that slavery provided. Many Northerners saw the moral issues with the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and recognized the need for racial equality in the United States. As a result of the aggressively opposing viewpoints between the North and the South, the Civil War was fought to abolish slavery. In postbellum times, what became known as the civil rights movement swept the country, garnering support in the North and opposition in the South. The proposal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would outlaw the forms of discrimination against blacks that were put in place by Southern governmental institutions, elicited reactions that were characteristically regionalized. Due to their contrasting historical backgrounds and the two regions’ subsequent views on politics, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was, generally speaking, received well and supported by Democratic Northerners while fiercely opposed by Republican Southerners.

Works Cited

Andrew Young. Interview by Jack Bass and Walter DeVries. Documenting the American South. University Library, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Pierce, R. “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” OpenCourseWare. Contributing Authors, 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Jason Sokol. “White Southerners’ Reactions to the Civil Rights Movement.” International Information Programs. U.S. Department of State, 29 Dec. 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.

Kozak, David, and Kenneth Ciboski. The American Presidency. Wadsworth: Wadsworth Publishing, 1985. Print.

Bunch, Lonnie. “The Unending Civil War: Race and Heritage are at the Heart of America’s Inability to Find Consensus about the Civil War.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education 3 Feb. 2011: 19+. Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Map of red states and blue states in the U.S. Map. 12 Nov. 2012. Red States and Blue States. Wikipedia. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

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