The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on the evening of July 2, 1964 and is celebrated as one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation in the fight for equality in America. Originally, President John F Kennedy introduced this Bill on June 19, 1963 in response to the national uproar sparked by the televised brutalization of Black marchers at the hands of law enforcement in Birmingham, Alabama a month earlier. After Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963, Johnson made the passage of the Bill central to his administration’s agenda. H.R. 7152 met with strong opposition from southern Democrats, and a turbulent year of congressional debates ensued.
It took an extraordinary amount of political maneuvering to even get the Bill to be debated on the floor of the House of Representatives, where Kennedy first introduced it in June 1963. House Judiciary Committee hearings eventually produced a compromise package with a strong piece of civil rights legislation. The Minority Report from these hearings inspired the infamous “$100 Billion Blackjack” advertisement that claimed the Bill would “abolish the rule of law,” a marketing strategy that sought to sway the American public to oppose the Bill.(1) In November of 1963, the Bill went to the House Rules Committee to be scheduled for debate on the House floor. Howard W. Smith, an infamous segregationist and conservative Democrat from Virginia, was the chairman of the Rules Committee and strongly opposed to the Bill’s implementation. Smith was notorious for killing bills by retreating to his farm in Fauquier County, Virginia and taking no action at all.(2) President Johnson called on liberal allies in Congress to begin applying pressure on Smith in the form of circulating a discharge petition, wherein a majority of the members of the House (218) calls a bill out of the committee and directly onto the floor. As the rumor that Johnson was rounding up support for this motion began to spread, the members of the Rules Committee forced the chairman to hold hearings and take a vote.(3) On January 30, 1964, the Bill was released to the floor for debate.
Once on the floor of the House, there were attempts to sabotage the Bill’s success. For example, representative Smith introduced an amendment to the Bill, adding “sex” to the groups protected by Title VII which addressed fair employment practices. Although some have argued that this was a well-intentioned gesture in support of the women’s rights movement, Smith’s true intentions remain unknown; and it can be reasonably argued that Smith hoped his conservative male colleagues would torpedo the Bill since it extended equal rights to women. Nevertheless, in spite of the opposition’s efforts, on February 10, 1964 the Bill passed the House with a vote of 290-130 and was sent to the Senate.
Once in the Senate, the debates became increasingly heated and the opposition ramped up the fervor of their discontent. In March of 1964, as a last-ditch effort to stop the Bill’s passage, southern Democrats launched a filibuster that, to this day, remains the longest Senatorial delay of business. For 60 working days, including seven Saturdays, the opposition attempted to stop the passage of the Bill. Their arguments opposing Title I and Title VI, in particular, highlight two of the most heavily relied on tactics that opponents to civil rights movements enact to perpetuate the discriminatory practices in voting systems and federally assisted programs.
Title I addressed voting rights and aimed to remove voter registration barriers for non-white citizens that took root after the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. As a stall tactic, the opposition outrightly rejected the existence of the issue—Daniel R. McLeod, Attorney General of South Carolina claimed that “‘the mere fact that less than 15 percent of a group of persons, white, colored. Chinese, whatever race, are not registered is, in every case that I am aware of, due only to one thing, one thing alone, and that is apathy.’”(4) The intent of southern Democrats and their political allies was clear, though—a “direct admission of discriminatory practices came in Senator Ellender [of Louisiana]’s concession that in some areas the reason for Negroes not voting was to maintain the political power of a white minority.”(5) The sentiment of their apathy bled into the argument that federal oversight of elections was an encroachment on states’ rights to decide the voting process.
Title VI outlined the process to end discrimination in federally assisted state programs, and permitted funding cuts to programs where discrimination has been found to exist, if earlier voluntary compliance with the anti-discrimination measures failed. Senator Sparkman of Alabama called the ability of “the executive branch to withhold funds… dangerous [and] possibly arbitrary.” He continued, “In many instances these funds might be general taxpayers' funds that come from the very area involved in the withholding.”(6) Ironically enough, like Representative Smith’s “sex” amendment, in trying to discredit the Title, Sparkman ended up proving the need for it. Sparkman worried that the citizens who pay taxes for federal services may not be able to receive the benefits of federally assisted programs if they are cut by the government. This is exactly what was happening to Black citizens—they were being taxed for programs from which they were excluded. In actuality, this Title attempted to prevent states from acting arbitrarily with federal money. This argument, of course, was coupled with the contradictory combination of outright denial of discrimination and argument that discrimination was their constitutional right.
At 9:51 on June 10, 1964 former Ku Klux Klan member Robert C. Byrd, Senator of West Virginia, ended his address that began 14 hours and 13 minutes earlier.(7) His address in particular is quite possibly the epitome of the white supremacy that the opposition was so tightly holding onto. However, they were fighting a losing battle: Nine days later, the Senate voted for cloture and ended the 75-day filibuster.
An examination of the arguments put forth by opponents to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that racism in American government is a calculated and malicious manipulation of the language of the Constitution and congressional proceedings in order to perpetuate racial inequality. The fact is, state law can always provide more rights than what the Constitution offers, but it can never, under any circumstance, deny citizens the rights they are guaranteed by the Constitution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to remedy the state laws and practices that denied Black Americans (as well as other individuals of color and women) the rights they were guaranteed as American citizens under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
1 Peter Evans Kane, "The Senate Debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act" (PhD diss., Purdue University, 1967), 101, https://search-proquest-com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/docview/302252562?pq-origsite=primo
4 Peter Evans Kane, "The Senate Debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act" (PhD diss., Purdue University, 1967) (“The Senate Debate”), 49, https://search-proquest-com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/docview/302252562?pq-origsite=primo.
5 Kane, “The Senate Debate,” 87.
6 Kane, “The Senate Debate,”148.
The grueling political battle resulting in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 deserves prominence in any study of American history. The Civil Rights Movement is ongoing, dynamic, broad-based, and multi-faceted and should not be reduced to photographs of peaceful protestors.
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com