Civil Rights Act of 1964

Commentary (August 1964).


At a news conference in 1962, John F. Kennedy coined the phrase, “sound public constitutional policy.” It was an entirely original conception, a hybrid of constitutional law and public policy. Constitutional law is produced by the Supreme Court. Public policy is what the political institutions—the Congress and the President jointly, and often the President on his own—evolve and put into effect. Mr. Kennedy’s phrase characterized with precision the civil rights commitment he had undertaken in the campaign of 1960. The broad and pervasive principle of the School Segregation Cases of 1954, he had then promised, would under his administration not only be the judicial policy of the federal government, but also the political policy of its executive branch. The executive department would be committed to “equal protection” as a rule of independent, self-starting political and administrative action, rather than merely as an obligation to uphold the courts.