Happy Anniversary, Civil Rights Act—Our Work Continues

As we approach the 52nd anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tomorrow, it is important to take a moment and remember this landmark law, particularly in the realm of education.

Civil Rights Act
iStockphoto.com | AlbertPego


Title IV of the Civil Rights Act requires public schools to desegregate and not take into account a student’s race, color, religion, or national origin in making school assignments. Public schools that fall under the purview of the act include elementary and secondary schools as well as public colleges and institutions of higher education. Title IV, in effect, enforced the Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown vs. Board of Education 10 years before. Although Brown required public schools to desegregate, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the regulations that implement Title IV provide an enforcement mechanism for the Department of Education to use to investigate schools and postsecondary institutions to determine if they are integrated.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act covers all programs, including schools and colleges, that receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education. Title VI prohibits the exclusion of any participant on the basis of his or her race, color, or national origin. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education is responsible for enforcing nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs.

The Civil Rights Act & ESEA

Less than a year after enacting the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). These two historic laws have worked in tandem in responding to local intransigence and expanded desegregation across the South in ways that had not occurred prior to 1964.  ESEA provided federal funds in such quantities to schools that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act became a critical tool in desegregating schools.

Without the Civil Rights Act, ESEA would have been unable to withhold funds from segregated districts, and conversely, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would have been less effective without ESEA funds with which to threaten districts. However, the Civil Rights Act is limited in furthering school desegregation because of the law’s provisions and enforcement. These constraints were particularly visible in the years following the laws’ passage when federal officials lacked the resources and expertise to fully carry out enforcement.

And the segregation with regard to a quality education continues today.  Part of the National Association for Music Education’s (NAfME) mission has been to advance music education by encouraging the study and making of music by all. It is clear that far more work must be done to accomplish this feat. According to figures from the Department of Education (ED), more than 1.3 million elementary students fail today to get any music instruction, and the same is true for about 800,000 secondary school students. In studies conducted by the ED, only 26 percent of Hispanic students receive any kind of arts education.  African-American Students have slightly higher access, but only with 28 percent of students receiving any kind of arts education. 

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides a good start in NAfME’s commitment to music by all by defining music as a core subject for a “well-rounded” education.  Additionally, in drafting Title IV-A of ESSA, Congress acknowledged that students can be discriminated against when trying to gain access to enriching subjects, including music. To this end, NAfME has directly requested to the ED’s Office of Civil Rights to include access and participation data to reporting conducted by ED’s Office of Civil Rights

Earlier this month, ED released their draft regulations on state accountability measures which state, “ESSA builds on ESEA’s legacy as a civil right law and seeks to ensure every child, regardless of race, income, background, or where they live has the chance to make of their lives what they will.” NAfME will submit ideas by the August 1st deadline on how best to achieve this mission in music education. 

Finally, NAfME’s appropriations requests for full funding of ESSA is crucial to improve access of music education and a quality well-rounded education. 

2016 All-National Honor Jazz Ensemble. Photo: Howard Rockwin, Musical Memories Photography.


The anniversary of the Civil Rights Act reminds us of the relentless advocacy of those who sought justice and equality. That advocacy must continue today to find true justice and equality for all children who wish to receive a quality, well-rounded education. 

“Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”

Music and the Civil Rights Movement

In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked to share his thoughts for the Berlin Jazz Festival. Dr. King said:

“Now, jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Music served as a source of strength and empowerment for those equality. It offered hope and dignity to those who experienced injustice and suffering.  The music lives on with us today as a staple of our country’s fabric. Click here for more on songs of the civil rights movement. 

Tooshar Swain, Legislative Policy Advisor, Center for Advocacy, Policy, and Constituency Engagement, July 1, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)