The Civil Rights Act of 1964

U.S. National Archives

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.  It  prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal. 

Just five days after John F. Kennedy is assassinated in November 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson goes before Congress and speaks to a nation still stunned from the events in Dallas that have shocked the world.

Johnson makes it clear that he will pursue the fallen President's legislative agenda—especially a particular bill that Kennedy had sought but that faces strong and vehement opposition from powerful southern Democrats.

“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,” LBJ tells the lawmakers.

Serving notice on his fellow southern Democrats that they are in for a fight, he says:

 “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

That chapter becomes the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

-President Lyndon B. Johnson

November 27, 1963

At the time John F. Kennedy takes office in January 1961, a person trying to register to vote in Mississippi must first pass a literacy test, then explain a portion of the US Constitution, and also be able to pay a poll tax before voting. With poor educational opportunities and racial discrimination, few African Americans in the state can meet all of these requirements.

During his first two years in office, President Kennedy has been cautious to push ahead with civil rights legislation as a result of his narrow election victory and small working margin in Congress. 

Instead, he has issued executive orders banning discrimination in federal hiring and federal housing, and he establishes the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

The Justice Department, under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, has actively promoted school integration, obtained an Interstate Commerce Commission ruling to enforce desegregation on interstate travel, and launched five times the number of lawsuits resulting from voting violations than the previous administration.  

For African Americans who have high expectations for the administration, more can, and should, be done.

On February 28, 1963 President Kennedy sends a Special Message to Congress outlining a plan to deal with racial discrimination. 

However, by early summer, nothing has come from Congress and major racial conflicts continue to flare in the South.

On May 2 in Birmingham, Alabama,  police dogs, nightsticks, and fire hoses are directed at civil rights demonstrators, many who are school children.  The violence is broadcast on television and ignites protests across the country.

President Kennedy is ready to take a bold stand.  On June 11, he announces that he is sending a tough civil rights bill to the Congress.

President Kennedy promises, “I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law."

A few hours later, Medgar Evers, director of the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), is murdered in the driveway of his house.

“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

-President John F. Kennedy

Speech to the Nation on Civil Rights

June 11, 1963

On June 19, President Kennedy sends a civil rights bill to Congress.

If the President’s bill can pass without changes, it will do seven things: 

1. Safeguard voting rights.

2.  Desegregate public places.

3.  Empower the attorney general to desegregate schools.

4.  Form a community relations service.

5.  Extend the life of the Commission on Civil Rights.

6.  Prohibit federal funding of programs that practice discrimination.

7.  Guarantee equal employment.

There has never been such a comprehensive civil rights bill; there is a long road ahead before it can pass. Democrats have a majority in both Houses, but many of those Democrats represent southern states, where segregation is still common practice if not written law.

President Kennedy begins a very public lobbying campaign, pressing various private organizations to desegregate and demonstrate support for his bill. 

Powerful southerners in the Democratic-controlled Congress oppose the bill, and this has serious implications: Southern Democrats chair twelve of eighteen committees in the Senate and twelve of twenty-one in the House. It means putting the President's entire legislative agenda at risk.

One part of President Kennedy's agenda is a proposed tax reduction. He believes it will stimulate the economy and have a positive influence on the 1964 election. But it needs time to do its work, so it has to be passed soon. This will be difficult because Congressional conservatives already dislike the bill.

Now, the civil rights bill could tie up Congress in a wrangle that might keep the tax bill from ever reaching to the House floor.

On June 26,  the House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 begins hearings on the civil rights bill. 

The subcommittee is dominated by liberals and chaired by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, who also heads the full committee, which is more balanced in membership. It is expected that the bill won't have trouble in the subcommittee.  

In August, Celler announces that they will begin closed sessions to “mark up” the bill into final form.

Meanwhile, the pressure for action on civil rights continues to grow. The biggest lobbying effort ever seen in the nation's capital, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, takes place in the summer of 1963.

There has been considerable worry in the administration that the event could turn ugly, perhaps degenerate into a massive riot. It has happened at other marches. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a chief organizer of the march, appoints his longtime associate, Bayard Rustin, to organize the March. 

Rustin sets up headquarters in New York City, in Harlem. Here, the “Big Six” – Randolph and leaders of the five major civil rights organizations – are joined by labor leader Walter Reuther and representatives of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish civil rights groups.  Known as the “Top Ten,” they put out a call to mobilize individuals and groups from all over the country.

“President Kennedy was a bit worried about it. . . .One of the problems was the matter of spilling over into the streets and becoming involved with violence. Now, our position was that we could not guarantee what would happen, but we had taken the precautions to plan the march [in detail], with a view to avoiding violence.”

-A. Philip Randolph

The March is set to take place on Wednesday, August 28.  As plans for the event come together over two short months, President Kennedy gradually comes around and expresses support for the demonstration which he says is in the great American tradition of peaceful assembly for redress of grievances. 

In the aftermath of protests around the country sparked by the Birmingham crisis, Attorney General Robert Kennedy's Justice Department develops a security plan for Washington DC. Rustin makes recommendations on how the federal government can protect demonstrators.

On August 28, nearly a quarter of a million people gather around the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., declare, “I have a dream.” 

There is no violence.

Following the event, the leaders are welcomed at the White House by President Kennedy. After he congratulates them on the success of the March, they get down to business and discuss the civil rights bill and the challenges that lay ahead.

On September 15, four little African American girls are killed in Birmingham when a bomb explodes under the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. There is enormous national outrage.

Members of the Celler subcommittee respond by introducing amendments to the civil rights bill to strengthen it far beyond what William McCulloch, the leading moderate Republican member, thinks can be voted out of the House.

Despite this, Chairman Celler accepts the amendments. His strategy for the subcommittee is to create a bill so strong that it can not win approval in the full committee. Then, Celler will work for compromise and try to get most of what he wanted in the first place.

The stage is set for the political infighting to begin in earnest.

"We were accused by some of being weak-kneed but, my God, are you going to have meaningful legislation or are you going to sit around for another five or ten years while you play this game? Those liberals sat around saying, “No, we won't accept anything but the strongest possible civil rights bill, and we won't vote for anything less than that.” To kill civil rights in that Judiciary Committee was an appalling possibility! And it was not only a possibility, it came darn close to an actuality.”

-Lawrence F. O'Brien

Chief  Liaison with Congress for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson

The Kennedy administration has hoped to get past the civil rights fight by the end of 1963, so as not to have the struggle continue into the upcoming election year. Now that looks unlikely, even if the committee reports favorably and promptly on the bill.

It takes until November 19 for the measure to make it to the Rules Committee to be scheduled for consideration on the floor of the House. From there, it is certain to meet more obstacles.

But at 12:30 p.m., on a sunny November 22 in Dallas, everything changes when President Kennedy is assassinated.

On November 27, with the nation mourning the loss of President Kennedy, LBJ addresses a joint session of Congress and gives notice that he wants quick action on both civil rights and the tax bill.

“I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color. There could be no greater source of strength to this Nation both at home and abroad.

"And second, no act of ours could more fittingly continue the work of President Kennedy than the early passage of the tax bill for which he fought all this long year. This is a bill designed to increase our national income and Federal revenues, and to provide insurance against recession. That bill, if passed without delay, means more security for those now working, more jobs for those now without them, and more incentive for our economy.”

-President Lyndon B. Johnson

November 27, 1963

On November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, LBJ meets with Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to talk about the civil rights bill.

Wilkins later recalls, “He said he could not enact it himself. He was the President of the United States. He would give it his blessing. He would aid it in any way in which he could lawfully under the Constitution, but that he could not lobby for the bill. And nobody expected him to lobby for the bill, and he didn't think we expected him to lobby for the bill. But in effect he said—and he didn't use these words - 'You have the ball; now run with it.'”

"He was asking us if we wanted it, if we would do the things required to be done to get it enacted.”

-Roy Wilkins

Executive Director of the NAACP

Meanwhile, another divisive issue is added to the bill.  During the debate on the House floor on Title VII, the equal employment part of the bill, Representative Howard W. Smith (D-VA) offers an amendment stating that not only should discrimination in employment based on race, creed, color, and national origin be illegal, but distinctions based on sex as well. 

Critics argue that Smith, a conservative Southern opponent of federal civil rights, has done so to kill the entire bill. Smith, however, argues that he has amended the bill in keeping with his support of Alice Paul and the National Women's Party with whom he has been working.

The House is thunderstruck. Now the question is not only where do the predominantly male Representatives stand on the question of race, but where do they stand on women?

However, the civil rights movement has gained momentum.  The House accepts Smith's amendment.

Despite this progress, LBJ is pessimistic.  The Senate is not governed in its debates by a rules committee, as is the House. In 1964, the Senate tradition of unlimited debate can only be terminated through a vote of two-thirds of the Senate: the cloture rule. 

Senators generally are reluctant to take any action that might make it easier to get cloture. So a southern filibuster against the civil rights bill is a certainty, as has happened with the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960. Only when civil rights advocates agreed to gut those bills had the southerners relented and allowed them to come to a vote.

Passage of the act will not be easy. House opposition bottles up the bill in the House Rules Committee. LBJ works simultaneously to move the tax bill forward in the Senate while devising strategy for the fight over the civil rights bill.

LBJ has arranged with Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat, his successor as Senate majority leader, to have Hubert Humphrey manage the civil rights bill. LBJ considers Humphrey a good political tactician.

The key to Senate passage of the civil rights bill is Minority Leader Dirksen, for only with substantial help from Senate Republicans is there any hope of success. 

 In early 1964 Humphrey makes an appearance on Meet the Press. When asked how he expects to get civil rights passed, in light of Dirksen's early vocal opposition, Humphrey replies, “Well, I think Senator Dirksen is a reasonable man. Those are his current opinions and they are strongly held, but I think that as the debate goes on he'll see that there is reason for what we're trying to do. . . . Senator Dirksen is not only a great senator, he is a great American, and he is going to see the necessity of this legislation.”

Humphrey later recalls that LBJ immediately phoned him and exclaimed: 

“Boy, that was right. You're doing just right now. You just keep at that. . . .You get in there and see Dirksen! You drink with Dirksen! You talk to Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”

In March, the southerners begin their expected filibuster. In past filibusters on civil rights, the southern senators had worn down their opponents until they agreed to a compromise. 

Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach is the administration's point man in the coming struggle, and he advises beating the southerners at their own game. The pro–civil rights senators should simply out-organize and outlast the southerners until the necessary votes for cloture had been gathered. Humphrey agrees. LBJ is skeptical at first but allows himself to be convinced.

Humphrey's Democratic forces prevent the filibustering southerners from using the parliamentary device of a quorum call (then resting their voices and their feet) while keeping the floor.

But all depends on getting the votes to impose cloture.  To get enough votes, Humphrey needs Dirksen's support, and some compromises are required. On May 13, Humphrey and Dirksen agreed on a key issue—the government can sue only in cases involving a “pattern or practice” of discrimination in public accommodations or fair employment. 

On June 10, the Senate votes 71-29 to shut off further debate. On June 19 the Senate passed the civil rights bill, 73-27.

On July 2, the House votes 289-126 to accept the Senate version of the bill.

“There is another reason why we dare not temporize with the issue which is before us. It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. Its time has come.”

-Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen supporting the move to end debate on the Civil Rights bill.

June 10, 1964

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2 in the East Room, of the White House.

 Segregation in businesses such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels is outlawed. Discriminatory practices in employment and segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries, and public schools are banned.

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum will host a three-day Civil Rights Summit, April 8 – April 10, 2014.  

The Act, along with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act in 1968, helped establish the legal foundation for equality among all Americans.  The Summit will commemorate those pivotal laws and will address the civil rights issues we face today in America and around the world.

President Barack Obama will be the keynote speaker and will be joined by three former Presidents who will also deliver remarks:  Jimmy Carter will speak on April 8; Bill Clinton will speak on April 9; and George W. Bush will speak on the evening of April 10.

Follow the live stream here: http://www.civilrightssummit.org/

This exhibit was created by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum.  The thirteen Presidential Libraries and Museums are administered by the National Archives and Records Administration.

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John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum — http://www.jfklibrary.org/
The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum — http://www.lbjlibrary.org/
The Office of Presidential Libraries — http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/
The National Archives and Records Administration — http://www.archives.gov/

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