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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

On November 20, the Civil Rights Act cleared the House Judiciary Committee in a much stronger form than proposed by the Administration. The bill was referred to the Rules Committee, which decides on release of bills for consideration by the full House. Chairman Howard W. Smith, a segregationist Democrat from Virginia, promised that the bill would never emerge from his committee.

Following the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a former Senate Majority Leader who was a master of Senate procedure, became President. Faced with pressure from the new President, surprising constituent support around the country for the measure as a result of the march, and a realization that the House would take the unusual step of bypassing the Rules Committee if it did not clear the bill, Smith let the bill out of committee.

During floor debate, Congressman Smith introduced an amendment on February 8 to add the word "sex" to the bill. "Now I am very serious about this amendment," he said. To his laughing colleagues, he explained that he had received a letter from a woman in Nebraska who wanted Congress to equalize the sexual ratio in the population by helping the "surplus of spinsters" obtain their "right" to happiness. (Smith's motivation remains unclear, but women's groups had urged him to introduce the amendment in hopes that his support would assure support from other southern Members of Congress who opposed the Civil Rights Act.)

At first, Congressmen took the amendment as a way to lighten the mood. Chairman Emanuel Celler (D-NY) of the Judiciary Committee said the amendment was unnecessary because he and his wife had a "delightful accord" for 50 years. "I usually have the last two words, and those words are 'Yes, dear.'"

As the leaders continued joking, female Representatives became incensed. "If anyone doubted that women were second class citizens," Congresswoman Martha Griffiths (D-Mi.) said, "the laughter would have proved it." Congresswoman Katherine St. George (R-NY) added:

We do not need special privilege. We outlast you. We outlive you. We nag you to death. So why should we want special privileges? I believe that we can hold our own. We are entitled to this little crumb of equality. The addition of that little, terrifying word, "s-e-x," will not hurt this legislation in any way.

Soon, southern opponents of the legislation rallied in support of the amendment. "Unless this amendment is adopted," said Congressman George Andrews (D-Ga.), "the white woman of this country would be drastically discriminated against in favor of a Negro woman!"

For tactical reasons, the Johnson Administration hoped the amendment would not pass. The hope was that the House and Senate would approve the same bill, thereby avoiding a Conference Committee that would be chaired by Southerners who opposed the bill. While the strategy may have been sound, the flow of debate led to support for adding women to the legislation. The House approved Smith's amendment by a vote of 168 to 133.

As one Member of Congress put it, "Smith outsmarted himself. At this point, there was no way you could sink the bill." With women now having a vested interest in the outcome, the bill passed the House by a vote of 290 to 130 on February 10. Its 10 titles outlawed segregation in schools, public accommodations, and Federal programs, as well as racial and gender discrimination in employment. [Pillar, p. 231-234]

Normally, the House bill would go to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was headed by Senator Eastland of Mississippi. Knowing that Eastland would never report a Civil Rights Act out, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Massachusetts used parliamentary procedures to bypass the committee and bring the House bill directly to the Senate floor for debate. When the bill reached the floor on March 30, 1964, Senator Richard Russell, Jr. (D-Ga.) launched a filibuster. "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." The Senate would transact no other business until the filibuster ended.

After 54 days, Senate leaders introduced a weaker version of the bill, still including the provision on women, but the filibuster continued. Finally, after 10 million words, the longest filibuster in Senate history came to an end on the 57th day. On June 9, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) began an address that included a complete reading of the Magna Carta and many biblical citations. He finished the speech the following day after 14 hours. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Mn.), the Democratic Whip and bill manager, concluded that he had the 67 votes needed at the time to end the filibuster. By a vote of 71 to 29, the Senate approved Humphrey's measure, cutting off a civil rights filibuster for the first time. (The Senate would change the rules in 1975 to reduce the number of votes needed to end a filibuster to 60, as at present.)

The Senate approved its weakened bill on June 19 by a vote of 73 to 27 - six Republicans, including Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater of Arizona, and 21 Democrats voted against the bill. On July 2, the House passed the Senate version.

President Johnson did not want to wait for a symbolic signing on July 4. At 6:45 p.m. of July 2, 1964, he addressed a television and radio audience before signing the bill. In the East Room, the audience included Attorney General Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Dr. King, AFL-CIO president George Meany, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, as well as Rosa Parks and James Forman of SNCC.

The President called the bill a "proud triumph" in the "unending search for justice within our own borders." He said the purpose of the new legislation "is simple." He described it:

  • It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others.
  • It does not give special treatment to any citizen.
  • It does say the only limit to a man's hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability.
  • It does say that there are those who are equal before God [sic] shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.
  • He cautioned against implementing the law "in a vengeful spirit."
  • Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions-divisions which have all lasted too long. Its purpose is national, not regional.
  • Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.

He was confident about achieving these goals "because most Americans are law-abiding citizens who want to do what is right." He pointed out that the legislation "relies first on voluntary compliance, then on the efforts of local communities and States to secure the rights of citizens." The national authority would step in "only when others cannot or will not do the job." He ended by urging every American "to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people-and to bring peace to our land." It would be "a time of testing," he said. "We must not fail."

Before using 72 ceremonial pens to sign the bill, he concluded:

Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this Nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all. [Pillar, p. 387-388]

The landmark bill provided the foundation for much of the civil rights progress to come for African-Americans and women. Even in the South, compliance with the new law was widespread if not universal. Branch summarized the reaction:

Most Southern politicians urged at least a grudging compliance. "As long as it is there, it must be obeyed," declared Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, and Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana announced that "the law enacted by Congress must be respected." Over the next several months, visible public separations broke down across the South in countless pioneer dramas-often mutually and meticulously prearranged to control discomforts on all sides. [Pillar, p. 388]

Title 1 of the Act required that voting rules and qualifications be applied to all races equally, but it left the South to continue imposing qualifications for voting that had proven nearly impossible for many African-Americans to meet. That would be the next legislative hurdle, and a road in Alabama would help achieve the goal.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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