The Civil Rights Act was signed into law July 2, 1964, 55 years ago, today. The Act set out to prevent discrimination based on race, color, creed, sex, and nationality.
The act ultimately marked the end of segregation in public places. It also banned employment discrimination, a law that paved the way for additional landmark civil rights bills including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
A Civil Rights movement several years in the making, President John F. Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Bill in June of 1963, months before he was assassinated.
“If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?” —President John F. Kennedy
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, picked up his predecessor’s baton withstanding the longest Southern Congressman and segregationalists-led filibuster in Senate history, 75 days, with former ku klux klansman, Senator Robert Byrd speaking for 14 hours and 13 minutes straight in a futile attempt to talk the bill to death.
The bill’s supporters eventually obtained the two-thirds votes necessary to break the filibuster, one of those votes came from Senator Clair Engle (CA), who, too sick to speak, signaled “aye” by pointing to his own eyeball.
Having broken the filibuster, the Senate voted 73-27 in favor of the Civil Rights bill, and Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964.
“Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.” —Lyndon B. Johnson
What Is the Civil Rights Act?
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation on the grounds of race, religion or national origin was banned at all places of public accommodation, including courthouses, parks, restaurants, theaters, sports arenas, and hotels. Blacks and other minorities could no longer be denied service based on the color of their skin.
The Civil Rights Act also banned discrimination based on race, creed, nationality, and gender by employers and labor unions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with the power to file lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved workers was created to enact this ruling.
Additionally, the act forbade the use of federal funds for any discriminatory program, authorized the Office of Education (now the Department of Education) to enforce desegregation of schools, and prohibited voter disenfranchisement.
“The time has come, Mr. President, to let those dawn-like rays of freedom, first glimpsed in 1863, fill the heavens with the noonday sunlight of complete human dignity.”
—Second Emancipation Proclamation, May 1962, never adopted
Though Kennedy is heavily lauded as a vanguard of Civil Rights, history tends to forget that leading up to the Civil Rights Bill originally proposed by Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. courted Kennedy with the idea of a Second Emancipation Proclamation, of which Kennedy balked.
Dr. King, Jr. created an ornate, leather-bound “Second Emancipation Proclamation” document and presented it to President Kennedy with copies for additional Administration members, an idea inspired by the original Emancipation Proclamation Dr. King saw hanging on the wall of the Lincoln bedroom while touring the White House with President Kennedy.
The hard-fought proposal was ultimately shut down and ignored by the White House inciting a standoff, of sorts, between both Dr. King and Kennedy. Dr. King continued with his peaceful protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations which usually de-escalated into abhorrent violence against Blacks by racists and segregationalists.
After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson stated that with Dr. King and other ministers risking their lives and enduring such heinous racism, if they could change the political climate, the least he would do was sign the Bill into effect. The Civil Rights Act was enacted largely due to the tireless work of Dr. King and freedom-fighters throughout the South and Nation, as a whole.