As Civil Rights Act turns 50, most Americans appreciate its importance

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others look on in the East Room of the White House, July 2, 1964.
LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton

By Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto and Fred Backus

As the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act nears, almost eight in 10 Americans, including most whites and blacks, say passage of the 1964 act was a very important event in U.S. history, 17 percent call it somewhat important, while just 4 percent think it was not an important event.

In addition to its historical importance, Americans think the Civil Rights Act has had a positive effect on both the country overall and on blacks in the U.S. Eighty-one percent think the act has been good for the country, while a mere 1 percent thinks it has been bad. Sixteen percent say it hasn't made much difference.

Similarly, most Americans think the Civil Rights Act has improved things for African-Americans in the U.S, including 84 percent of whites and 83 percent of blacks.

Those under age 65 are more likely than those age 65 and over to think the Civil Rights Act has been good for the country and the lives of African-Americans (although seven in ten seniors think it has improved the country and the lives of blacks).

There is little difference by political party. About eight in 10 Republicans, Democrats, and independents think the Civil Rights Act was positive for both the country overall and for African Americans specifically.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in July of 1964. Looking back at his presidency more generally, Americans view him more positively than negatively. Forty-seven percent think he was a very good or good president (including 3 percent who say he was one of the greatest), while a third say he was only fair or a poor president. Still, one in five doesn't have an opinion. Democrats and independents are more inclined to view President Johnson's presidency positively, while Republicans are divided.

Views of Race Relations

While Americans acknowledge progress ending racial discrimination, nearly half don't think it will be completely eradicated.

More than three in four Americans think real progress has been made getting rid of racial discrimination, and just 20 percent think there hasn't been much real progress. The percentage that says progress has been made has risen nearly thirty points since 1992, and has been consistent since 2008.


However, these views vary by race. Whites (81 percent) are more likely than African-Americans (68 percent) to think real progress has been made. Nearly a third of African-Americans say there hasn't been real progress.


But Americans also see limits to that progress. Just over half, 52 percent, think there is real hope of ending racial discrimination altogether, and nearly as many - 46 percent -- think there will always be a lot of prejudice and discrimination.

Again, there are sizable differences in the views of whites and blacks. Blacks are less likely than whites to see real hope of ending racial discrimination; 61 percent of blacks think it will always exist, compared to just 44 percent of whites.

While more than half of Americans think whites and blacks have an equal chance of getting ahead in today's society, about a third of Americans think whites have a better chance.

Here too, there are racial differences behind the overall numbers: 31 percent of whites think white people have a better chance of getting ahead; that rises to 44 percent among African-Americans.


About six in 10 Americans say that race relations in this country are generally good, and just a third describes them as generally bad. While these percentages are reversed from the 1990s, they have remained fairly consistent for the past few years.

And on this question, whites and blacks are nearly in agreement; majorities of both call race relations generally good.

Americans rate race relations in their own neighborhood much more positively than they rate it in the country as a whole. Seventy-eight percent say race relations in their community are good.

Eighty-one percent of whites, and 70 percent of blacks, say that race relations in their communities are generally good.

President Obama

President Barack Obama has twice been elected with strong support from African Americans, and his approval rating remains high among this group. In a CBS News Poll conducted earlier in March, 85 percent of blacks approve of the job Mr. Obama is doing, more than twice the approval rating he receives from whites.


This poll was conducted by telephone March 26-30, 2014 among 1,017 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by Social Science Research Solutions of Media, Pa. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.