What the Civil Rights Act Really Meant (2024)

Sixty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a monumental piece of legislation that forever changed the nature of race and gender in American society. In the decades since, legal scholars have offered hundreds of interpretations of the law, but none more powerful than the words of the young Black students who attended the Mississippi Freedom Schools that opened just days after Johnson signed the bill. Perhaps the law’s most important lesson for us today is rooted in the students’ efforts to explain how it would affect their future.

The Freedom School students imagined new dreams for their lives based on the messages conveyed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the law did not immediately resolve America’s painful legacy of racial injustice, it did embody a wave of hope. Today, however, legislators in dozens of states are in a frenzied rush to pass laws that do the opposite for America’s youth: Animated by right-wing activists, lawmakers across the nation are seeking to ban the teaching of parts of U.S. history that they deem “divisive.”

Many of the lessons once taught in the Mississippi Freedom Schools would certainly fall under these bans. In fact, some of the very same books used to empower Freedom School students have already been censored in parts of America. In blocking access to the most potent form of intellectual empowerment, legislators convey clear societal values, especially in places such as Alabama and Tennessee, where state legislatures have passed laws to protect monuments to the Confederacy.

Although young people may not understand the complicated legal implications of new legislation, they can certainly discern broader cultural meanings behind our laws. Most of today’s young children won’t follow debates over school segregation and private-school vouchers, or even the laws dictating classroom content or efforts to ban books. But young people can sense when they are being devalued. Like the Freedom School students of 1964, they understand that laws have expressive functions. Today’s young people, too, should have the chance to know what the Civil Rights Act means for them.

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That summer of 1964, more than 2,000 young Black Mississippians attended one of some 40 Freedom Schools that operated across the state. These schools were organized by a coalition of civil-rights activists to supplement the inferior education available to Black youths in Mississippi’s public schools, which remained segregated until fall of that year, when the Civil Rights Act finally forced Mississippi to begin to comply with school desegregation. Those young Black people lived in a state that tightly controlled and censored the subjects that could be taught in regular Mississippi schools. Teachers were surveilled and barred from belonging to such organizations as the NAACP.

Every child who attended a Freedom School experienced racism on a daily basis. In addition to public harassment and the prospect of violence, these youths grew up in segregated neighborhoods and attended underfunded schools, and their hometowns were filled with Confederate monuments as well as with streets and parks named for slave owners and Klansmen.

And yet, a century on from the Civil War, they were also living in a moment of transition. Their time in Freedom School coincided with the first days of the Civil Rights Act.

Freedom Schools exposed Black students to history lessons that connected them with inspirational heroes such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. The experience also offered a path to empowerment by explaining the systems and laws that created the stark racial inequalities between Black and white Mississippians. In Freedom School, students learned about Reconstruction and the historical origins of racial discrimination—lessons that dispelled the myths of white supremacy by showing how carefully Mississippi’s racial hierarchy had been shaped and curated.

Emboldened by these lessons, Freedom School students wrote thousands of essays, articles, and poems expressing their feelings about race. The things they wrote are held in archives in dozens of institutions across the country, as I found while researching my 2015 book, To Write in the Light of Freedom. Many of these students were indignant about the whitewashed histories taught in public schools, and they gave credit to the Freedom School for helping open their eyes. A junior-high-school-aged girl named Linda wrote, “We have been taught that the white man was responsible for the abolishing of slavery, but that is false. What about the Negro abolitionists?” And she concluded, “The reason for my coming out of the darkness is by attending Freedom Schools.” Another student compared the Freedom School experience to “having the lights turned on after you have lived all your life in a darkened room.” That type of intellectual liberation was one of the most profound products of the civil-rights movement, in Mississippi and beyond.

Almost immediately after the Civil Rights Act became law, the students began discussing its implications for their own life. A pair of junior-high-school kids in Hattiesburg wrote, “I am glad that the Civil Rights Bill was passed because whites can go to any show. And we could go to any show they go to.” One of their classmates wrote, “I know that the white people are angry because the civil rights laws has passed, but I am very glad because we are able to go to cafes and shows, we will have better school books and most of all we will have the opportunity to go to better schools.” Another 13-year-old expressed this complaint about Hattiesburg: “The one thing I don’t like is these Jim Crow restaurants. What I mean by that is these places where they allow no one but white skinned people to eat and not people with black skins. Since the bill passed I eat where I want to.”

Some of the more forward-thinking Freedom School students shared still-loftier dreams. “Now that the Civil rights Law has been passed,” wrote a junior-high-school student from Palmer’s Crossing, “I pray and hope for a better America, and a better Mississippi in which to live.” As Archie Richard of Benton County wrote, with a 12-year-old’s syntax and spelling but with absolute clarity of vision:

Now that the civil rights bill have been signed, we children going to school have a better chance of learning the different subjects we wish to, if we put our minds to it. We can finish school, go to college, and make a new start in life. We hope and pray that everything works out okay that we all can work and play together—Whites and Negroes—in the name of the Lord.

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More than 30 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein argued for understanding “the expressive function of law” when considering the effects of legislation. Sunstein, who was the same age as the Freedom School students but of a very different background, articulated a legal philosophy that reflected the experience of Black Mississippians in 1964. Laws matter, Sunstein argued, not only for the process of “controlling behavior” but also for “making statements” to members of society.

Today’s renewed efforts to censor the topics taught in American classrooms reek of the very Jim Crow system that civil-rights activists sought to strike down. In a healthier democracy, and in a freer and more open country, we would pass more laws like the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When he signed the bill into law, President Johnson praised its “abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.” Like the Freedom School students of 1964, the children of the 21st century deserve laws that express messages of hope.

William Sturkey is an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, most recently, of The Ballad of Roy Benavidez: The Life and Times of America’s Most Famous Hispanic War Hero.

What the Civil Rights Act Really Meant (2024)
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