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February 10 – Civil Rights Act of 1964

On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered his civil rights speech to the nation, and set into motion an important and historic piece of legislation. One year and one month later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed this bill into law. What was it, and how did it come to pass…?

LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Behind him stands Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a monumental step forward in the push for Civil Rights, and it had many far-reaching implications. First, it prohibited any state or local government or public facility from denying access to anyone because of race or ethnic origin. Additionally, it gave the U.S. Attorney General the power to bring school desegregation law suits and gave the federal government the ability to cut off federal funds to companies or states who discriminated (effectively putting an end to the Jim Crow laws of the South). Furthermore, it forbade labor organizations or interstate commercial companies from discriminating against workers due to race or ethnic origins. And lastly, the federal government could compile records of denial of voting rights.

However, passage of this bill into law was no simple or straightforward process. It encountered fierce resistance and numerous delays, and was subjected to several revisions. When President Kennedy delivered his bill to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on June 19, 1963, it was designed to give “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.”

Emmanuel Celler (L) and Howard W. Smith (R)

What it did NOT include were provisions offering protection against police brutality, ending discrimination in private employment, or granting the Justice Department power to initiate desegregation or job discrimination lawsuits… provisions seen as essential by civil rights leaders at the time. Fortunately, these provisions were added by the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Emmanuel Celler (D-NY). After the Judiciary Committee, it was referred to the Rules Committee, which was chaired by Howard W. Smith (D-VA). Smith was an avid segregationist who made it quite clear he intended to stall the bill indefinitely. But after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson’s political pressure, shifting public sentiment, and an impending discharge petition filed by Celler, Smith finally let it through. The bill was put to a vote, and on February 10, 1964, it passed (290-130) and was sent to the Senate.

Senator Richard Russell from Virginia

The road did not get any smoother in the Senate, as the “Southern Bloc” of southern Senators led by Richard Russell (D-GA) launched a filibuster to block the bill. “We will resist to the bitter end,” said Russell, “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 Everett Dirksen (R-IL), Thomas Kuchel (R-CA), Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Mike Mansfield (D-MT) offered a substitute (“compromise”) bill which was weaker, but not so much as to force a reconsideration.

On June 19, 1964, the bill was passed by the Senate (73-27), approved by both houses of Congress, and signed into law on July 2, 1964. After signing, LBJ famously turned to an aide and said, “We (the Democratic Party) have lost the South for a generation.”

thanks for reading,

francis

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