On this day in 1964, while the Reverend Martin Luther King looked on, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Intended to end discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin, it is often called the most important U.S. law on civil rights since Reconstruction (1865–77) and is a hallmark of the American civil rights movement.
Title I of the act guarantees equal voting rights by removing registration requirements and procedures biased against minorities and the underprivileged. Title II prohibits segregation or discrimination in places of public accommodation involved in interstate commerce. Titles III and IV apply to public facilities and public education, respectively. Title V strengthened the existing Civil Rights Commission, and Title VI prevents discrimination by programs and activities that receive federal funds.
The crowning piece of the earth-altering act, Title VII bans discrimination by trade unions, schools, or employers involved in interstate commerce or doing business with the federal government. The latter section also applies to discrimination on the basis of sex and established a government agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, to enforce these provisions.
The Civil Rights Act was a highly controversial issue in the U.S. as soon as it was proposed by Pres. John F. Kennedy in 1963. Kennedy sought legislation “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments”—as well as “greater protection for the right to vote.” Kennedy delivered this speech in the aftermath of the Birmingham campaign and the growing number of demonstrations and protests throughout the South, and was moved to action following the elevated racial tensions and wave of black riots in the spring 1963.
Murdered in broad daylight, Kennedy did not see passage of the package, and his shocking assassination changed the calculus. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, an unabashed son of the South, made use of his experience in legislative politics, along with the bully pulpit he wielded as president, in support of the bill. In his first address to a joint session of Congress four days after Kennedy’s death, Johnson told the legislators, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
After eventual passage in the more liberal House, the original bill came before the full Senate for debate on March 30, 1964; the “Southern Bloc” of 18 southern Democratic Senators and one Republican Senator led by Richard Russell (D-GA) launched a filibuster to prevent its passage. Said Russell: “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states.”
After 54 days of filibuster, Senators Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), Mike Mansfield (D-MT), Everett Dirksen (R-IL), and Thomas Kuchel (R-CA), introduced a substitute bill that they hoped would attract enough Republican swing votes in addition to the core liberal Democrats behind the legislation to end the filibuster. The compromise bill was weaker than the House version in regard to government power to regulate the conduct of private business, but it was not so weak as to cause the House to reconsider the legislation.
With this version again languishing through filibuster, a cloture vote of 71 to 29, the first such action required since 1927, brought the bill up for final passage with a vote of 73-27. This in turn quickly passed through the House–Senate conference committee, which adopted the Senate version of the bill, and the conference bill was passed by both houses of Congress.
While many Americans of varying religious and political affiliation rejoiced, white groups opposed to integration with African Americans responded to the act with a significant backlash taking the form of hot litigation, protests and violence. In the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre of South Carolina, three African-American males were killed by highway patrolmen over the right to bowl, and spasms of violence ripped through the country, culminating in the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy in the spring of that year.
Upon the signing of the CRA, Johnson is said to have told an aide, “We (Democrats) have lost the South for a generation,” yet it appears the Texan was giving too much credit to the United States. Indeed, using dog whistles as well as bullhorns in 1968, Dick Nixon succeeded Johnson, ignominiously slithering into the White House in the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s murder, and sounding the familiar themes of race, the “silent majority” and “law and order” which sound eerily familiar today.
A half-century later, race-based politics ushered in a man committed to inequality, kleptocracy, self-dealing and ignorance. Notwithstanding, in 2020, the quaint notions of liberty, equality, decency and humanity may still reemerge in a 243-year-old nation which so often insists on behaving like an adolescent.