On June 11, 1963, after federal troops forced Governor George Wallace to allow two African-American students, Vivian Hood and James Malone, to enroll at the University of Alabama, John F. Kennedy gave the above speech, perhaps the finest of his career. (The highlight of the address begins around the 4 minute mark; part 2 can be found here; the full text and audio are available here.) A day later, Byron De La Beckwith killed Medgar Evers. Then, near summer’s end, more than 200,000 people participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King shared his dream for the nation. Less than three months after that, Lee Harvey Oswald (please, don’t start) assassinated JFK. Finally, a bit more than a year after Kennedy’s Civil Rights address, on this day in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson honored Kennedy’s and Evers’s memories by signing the Civil Rights Act.
Well isn’t that a neat package, tied up with a pretty bow? Actually, the story’s much more complex than that, probably too complicated for a short-form blog post. For example, Kennedy’s support for Civil Rights was often notoriously lukewarm. And Johnson, at the time Senate Majority Leader, had infamously tried to have it both ways with the 1957 Civil Rights Act: insuring that the legislation would be gutted, to placate Southern Democrats, while shepherding it to passage, a subtle nod to the party’s pro-Civil Rights wing. By 1963, though, JFK had embraced the cause. At least sort of. Confronted with the intransigence of segregationists like Wallace, and worried that the U.S.’s image as a free society would suffer in the eyes of the international community at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy pushed for a Civil Rights Act — until he was killed. Which is when LBJ picked up the torch.
President Johnson, aided by Hubert Humphrey and other Democratic advocates for the bill in the Senate, then locked horns with LBJ’s longtime friend and mentor, Georgia Democrat and white supremacist, Richard B. Russell, who said: “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.” (You can see LBJ above, looming over Russell. God, Johnson was a scary prick.) Beginning in March 1964, Russell organized segregationists in the Democratic caucus for what would be the longest filibuster in the Senate’s history. Johnson and Humphrey worked tirelessly to outflank them. But the two Democrats had to rely also on Everett Dirksen, a leading Senate Republican, for support. Finally, on June 10, 1964, Dirksen had the votes for cloture. Russell and the segregationists stopped yapping. And less than a month later, the Civil Rights Act came to the floor.
Even that’s just a fraction of the Act’s legislative history, as lawmakers continued maneuvering behind closed doors. The bill, as originally written, forbade segregation in public accommodations and outlawed discriminatory hiring practices, but only those based on race. Then, at the eleventh hour, Senator Howard Smith, a Democrat from Virginia, added one word to the legislation: “sex.” Hott! Smith’s detractors claimed that the Senator, a segregationist, had amended the text to scuttle the bill. Smith, though, insisted that he was working with Alice Paul, that he was championing women’s rights. Regardless, the final bill made it illegal for an employer to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges or employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Title VII of the Act also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to implement the law.
Despite the changes, the Act passed — 73-27 — and LBJ signed it into law on this day in 1964. The nation moved incrementally closer to realizing the promise embedded in the 14th Amendment. Which is why, despite long odds, I still support Dr. Ron Paul for President. Courage, my friends. Courage in the face of tyranny.