Going off the Deep End: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Desegregation of Little Rock's Public Swimming Pools

By Kirk, John A. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Going off the Deep End: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Desegregation of Little Rock's Public Swimming Pools


Kirk, John A., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Fifty years ago, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed one of the twentieth century's landmark pieces of civil rights legislation into law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a wide-ranging coverage that tackled discrimination in education, voting rights, and labor relations. Its most immediate impact, however, came in the abolition of segregation in "public accommodations." Following on courts' piecemeal dismantling of certain segregated facilities and the community campaigns by civil rights activists that had intensified in the decade before, the 1964 Civil Rights Act finally outlawed segregation in all public places. These included any facility that was "owned, operated, or managed by or on behalf of any state or subdivision thereof," as well as commercial concerns.1 U.S. Supreme Court rulings that followed in cases such as Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States and Katzenbach v. McClung upheld the Civil Rights Act's contention that the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause gave Congress power to forbid racial discrimination even in privately run businesses.2

Unlike the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling ten years earlier, the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not meet with a campaign of massive resistance to its implementation.3 Reflecting the impact of the civil rights movement in changing attitudes toward Jim Crow, many not yet desegregated facilities quickly moved to comply with the new law. That still leftcivil rights activists with the task of testing whether other facilities and businesses that claimed to have desegregated would actually admit and serve African-American customers, as well as the task of exerting direct pressure on those that continued to refuse to do so. Without African Americans actually turning up to use those facilities, there was no way of knowing if they had desegregated or not. This would be a painstaking endeavor, since it meant coordinating attempts of volunteers to use every single public facility or business in every single community across the South.4

Most revealing about the response to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the pattern of compliance and non-compliance that developed. There were few cast-iron certainties about how any given community would react to the desegregation of one set of facilities as opposed to another. In fact, it was the wide variety and range of responses that was often striking. Nevertheless, there were some broadly discernable tendencies. Firstly, it often proved easier to desegregate both publicly funded facilities and private businesses in Upper South states than in Lower South states, where attitudes toward segregation were more entrenched. Secondly, it often proved easier to desegregate facilities in urban areas than in rural areas. In rural areas, sentiment against change appeared to be more inflexible, local officials and businesses were more isolated and therefore more susceptible to community pressure to resist change, and African-American populations were smaller and had fewer resources to challenge the status quo. By contrast, urban areas generally offered a wider range of opinions among whites, including more support for desegregation; they offered protection in numbers for officials and businesses; and they harbored a larger African- American community with more resources and support structures in place to challenge segregation. Thirdly, the larger chains of eating and retail establishments were often easier to desegregate than smaller independent businesses. Larger chains were generally more conscious of their national image and standing, they were less susceptible to local actions such as white boycotts, and, if it came down to it, they had the option of relocating elsewhere. Smaller business were often family concerns and more likely to be attuned with and sensitive to community sentiment, since they relied on local goodwill for their custom, and they were more vulnerable to retribution and loss of their smaller clientele if they violated local mores. …

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