We pause today to remember President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act, which turns 50 this year, ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and is considered one of the most important pieces of legislation since the Civil War. It is often heralded as the crowing jewel of the civil rights movement.
The road leading to Johnson’s East Room signing was a long and treacherous one. While a trio of Constitutional amendments following the Civil War abolished slavery, made former slaves citizens and gave all men the right to vote, regardless of their race, well-ensconced prejudices undermined the implementation of these guarantees. Particularly in the American South, a raft of Jim Crow laws including poll taxes and literacy tests served to undermine the progress for which these Amendments stood.
It took almost 80 years after the end of Reconstruction for the first national civil rights law to be passed. It came in the form of the 1957 establishment of a civil rights section within the Department of Justice and the convening of a Commission on Civil Rights to investigate allegations of discrimination. By 1961, Congress had also appointed three referees to assist in the registration of black voters.
Predictably though, these important strides were less than they could have been, owing to their dilution by legislators from the Southern states. In 1961, when President John Kennedy assumed office, he too was initially hesitant to take on the resistance of the solid South. Buoyed by protests in places like Birmingham, Ala., the president began to act.
In June 1963 he proposed a comprehensive civil rights bill, saying the United States “will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.” Of course, this momentum was subordinated to the tragedy of his assassination that November.
His successor, Johnson immediately took up Kennedy’s cause. In his first State of the Union address, Johnson framed the coming fight: “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.”
The debate in Congress was rancorous. Over 100 hostile amendments were offered to Johnson’s bill. All were defeated. In the end, the House passed the legislation on a vote of 290 to 130.
For all the fury in the House, the Senate was a scene of deep intransigence. Southern and border state senators staged a 75-day-long filibuster, during which former Ku Klux Klan member, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, spoke for 14 straight hours.
Through machinations behind-the-scenes, support quietly grew, with supporters eventually gaining sufficient votes to end the filibuster. This was due in no small part to Johnson’s legendary brow-beating, cajoling and horse-trading. Having broken the filibuster, the Senate voted 73 to 27 in favor of passage.
Fifty years ago today, Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964. “It is an important gain, but I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” Johnson, a Democrat, purportedly told one of his aides.
As Johnson signed the bill into law, he used 75 different pens to affect his signature. He gave one of those pens to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. King regarded the pen as one of his most prized possessions.