The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ridded the nation of this legal segregation and cleared a path towards equality and integration. The passage of this Act, while forever altering the relationship between blacks and whites, remains as one of history’s greatest political battles.
The first of its kind since the Civil War, this bill drastically called for the end of all segregation in all public places. In the eyes of the civil rights movement leaders, this bill was long over due.
Kennedy’s crusade began slowly to the dismay of many civil rights leaders in February of 1963. He began by sending the United States Congress a “Special Message on Civil Rights,” stating,
Our Constitution is color blind, …but the practices of the country do not always conform to the principles of the Constitution…(Loevy, 5).
Kennedy received praise for these strong and moving words yet was criticized for his weak legislative proposals to remedy the situation. By May of 1963, his proposal would change greatly however, after two men, from opposite positions set the civil rights movement into intense motion. Martin Luther King despite advice to do otherwise began massive protests in the street of Birmingham. To combat these protests, Police Commissioner “Bull” Conner used any means, including dogs, fire hoses, and electric cattle prods on protestors. Making newspapers and television everywhere, the Birmingham atrocity along with King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” ignited the moral conscious of Americans nationwide. While Conner earned a negative reputation, President Kennedy wisely commented, “‘Bull’ Connor has done more for civil rights than anyone else…The civil rights movement should thank God for him. He has helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln” (Whalen 86). The apparent Birmingham defeat for King in reality was the key point in which the battle to win civil rights became a national fight with the President as one of its strongest allies.
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Before the Birmingham situation, Kennedy kept a fragile balance with the civil rights activists and the Southern Democrats. While in office, Congress consisted of a great number of Southern Democrats with some liberal Northerners and Western Democrats (Loevy 8). In order to pass many of his liberal programs, a large number of them economic, Kennedy needed the support of these Southern Democrats. To add to this complicated situation, Kennedy knew that while the Southern Democrats would not support civil rights proposals directly, his economic plans, including aid to education and raising the minimum wage, if approved, would benefit the black population. Kennedy also needed the Southern Democrats voter support in the upcoming 1964 presidential election to secure re-election. Any aggravation to this party would only guarantee a loss for Kennedy.
Motivated by the Birmingham situation, by the summer of 1963 Kennedy could no longer placate the Southern Democrats by leaving civil rights legislation untouched. Although realizing how action could endanger his chances for re-election, he saw beyond politics and into the moral issue. With public support Kennedy was willing to wage in the political war that would inevitably ensue. Kennedy and Johnson both were very aware of the walls that Congress would build to stop any proposals involving civil rights. Immediate and effective action became the new focus.
Together Kennedy, Johnson, and the civil rights leaders combined efforts to achieve speedy and thorough results. By May 31, 1963, Kennedy announced his plans for the civil rights movements to the public. First hand attempts to maintain segregation by the outspoken racist Governor George Wallace of Alabama provided Kennedy with the ideal timing to deliver his message. Before even outlining the details of his new proposal he told the nation, Next week 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 (Loevy 17).
Immediately thereafter, he and Johnson headed meetings to outline the plans. The Leadership Conference of Civil Rights consisting of fifty or so civil rights organizations which had previously been established after Kennedy’s initial proposals, called for a meeting on July 2nd inviting its participating members but also extended invitation to an additional fifty religious groups and other possible helpful groups. The organization finally felt confident in fighting for this bill with unanimous determination to overrun possible roadblocks by mobilizing the nation behind the bill (Berman 57). Despite administrative support from Kennedy and Johnson, their goal remained difficult to achieve.
The Leadership Conference dedicated their goals to achieving a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), a provision called Part III, named after the third proposed Eisenhower administration civil rights bill, and eliminating segregation in all accommodations. The FEPC would consist of enforcing employment equality and fairness while the Part III would allow the United States attorney general to file civil rights suits, thereby relieving individuals of filing a suit which could cause dangerous retaliations. Knowing the approval of this proposal would be hard to attain the Leadership Conference strove for all, while accepting that concessions would most likely have to be made.
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Still attempting to mobilize the public and get the bill some attention, the civil rights activists continued to demonstrate. The “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” headed by King, had over 200,000 participants and proved those who feared violence wrong. The protest continued with peace while the crowd repeated, “Pass the Bill” (Levy 24). Despite the success of the protest in Washington D.C., the Leadership Conference was having a hard time getting the proposed bill past the House Judiciary Committee.
The Bill needed to be tailored to get the future approval of both the Republican and Democratic civil rights supporters, enough to overrule the perceived resistant Senate by 2/3’s vote if necessary. Yet the bill could not be so tailored that it be minimally effective in the eyes of the Leadership Conference. Finally after a plea to the House Judiciary Committee by Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, a bill hoping to please all parties moved to the House of Representatives. However when it appeared that the bill was finally making some headway, the unthinkable happened, President Kennedy was assassinated.
Many civil rights leaders feared that Johnson, originally from the South, would not push for the bill as Kennedy had. However, Johnson surprised many when he pushed for the bill as before. In his first address to Congress after Kennedy’s death, Johnson stated, “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” (Loevy, 356). By that February the bill made its way through the House of Representatives with a vote of 290-130. Resembling Kennedy’s October 1963 proposal the House of Representatives surprised many by adding an amendment guaranteeing women as well as minorities to the protection of employment opportunity section of the bill (Loevy 357).
Once in the Senate, however, the bill faced its biggest challenges, including the infamous filibuster, or talking the bill to death. Since the Senate allows for endless debate on bills, making the filibuster a clever tactic, a cloture or two-thirds vote is necessary to overrule and end any debating. From March to June the bill was debated in the Senate until finally a vote of 71-29 on June 10, 1964, overruled the filibustering Senators. For the first time in American history, a southern filibuster of a civil rights bill was stopped by a cloture (Loevy 360). The civil rights supporters were satisfied with the fact that the bill included ending segregation in nearly all public places, cut off United States Government funds to programs that discriminated, and guaranteed equal employment opportunity. In order to avoid a second filibuster, the House of Representatives approved the bill with the Senates amendments making the civil rights bill the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, as President Johnson signed the bill in one of the largest bill-signing ceremonies ever.
The political fight that occurred in the Senate by determined Southern Democrats will forever remain as one of the greatest legislative showdowns in American history. After passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 however, no longer could segregation be legal or tolerated. In public places the rights of a black person were to be equal to that of a white person. In employment, blacks, minorities, and women could not be discriminated against. The federal government cut off funds to any business, educational institution, state or local government that practiced racial discrimination. To enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law also stated that the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were to intervene in situations in the South where blacks continued to be denied civil rights.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only changed the United States on a social level but politically too. This bill set the precedent for using a cloture to stop a filibuster in the Senate. Similar cloture votes in 1966 and 1968, with bills for equal voting rights and guaranteed equal housing respectively were used to stop Southern filibusters. The Civil Rights Act also proved that mass demonstration and peaceful protesting are heard in Washington D.C. Martin Luther King and the Leadership Conference started with nothing and achieved everything. From the segregated South those who fought for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the course of American history and ridded the nation of inequality under the law.
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