*“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 states.”
With that racist pronouncement, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia declared war on the federal civil rights bill that reached the Senate in the spring of 1964. Proposed by President John F. Kennedy in June of 1963, the legislation would ban discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion and gender. President Lyndon Johnson pushed hard for the Civil Rights Bill after Kennedy’s assassination in November of ’63 and it passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 290 – 130. But segregationists like Russell were determined to kill the bill in the Senate.
Eighteen Southern Democrats and one Republican joined forces in a filibuster designed to prevent the Senate from voting on the legislation. For fifty-four straight days, the Jim Crow lawmakers railed against the Civil Rights Bill on the Senate floor. West Virginia’s Robert Byrd (a former Ku Klux Klan leader) spent over fourteen hours blasting the bill. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (who filibustered a 1957 civil rights bill for 24 hours) attacked the 1964 legislation as “unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise…beyond the realm of reason.” Thurmond also said the Civil Rights Bill was “reminiscent of the Reconstruction proposals and actions of the radical Republican Congress (after the Civil War).”
This stonewalling of the Civil Rights Bill by Southern senators was finally shut down when Senate Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey used a procedure known as “cloture” to close the debate and force a vote on a compromise bill that Humphrey had drafted with Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (a fellow Democrat) and two Republican senators, Thomas Kuchel and Everett Dirksen. Thanks to much wrangling, deal making and arm twisting by President Lyndon Johnson, the Senate passed the modified Civil Rights bill on a 73 – 27 vote. The House quickly approved it 289–126.
The fierce opposition of Capitol Hill Southerners wasn’t the first impediment to federal civil rights legislation. The inaction of seemingly sympathetic liberals was also a roadblock. John F. Kennedy appealed to black voters during his 1960 presidential campaign, but for the first two years of his administration, Kennedy was largely mute on racial issues. He sent federal marshals to defend the Freedom Riders, but only after he criticized those peaceful protestors. And JFK reluctantly dispatched federal troops to control the white mobs that rioted after James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi. Such slow action earned the president criticism from civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who demanded that Kennedy issue an executive order declaring that racial discrimination was unconstitutional. The president declined.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1963 that President Kennedy finally took his strong stand for civil rights. This was after Birmingham police chief Bull Connor attacked nonviolent civil rights marchers with police dogs and fire hoses, and after Alabama Gov. George Wallace taunted the federal government by physically blocking black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling at the University of Alabama. On June 11, 1963, after ordering federal troops to remove Gov. Wallace from the college doorway, President John F. Kennedy appeared on national television to announce the Civil Rights Bill, and to challenge America’s conscience. The President stated:
“We preach freedom around the world and we mean it. But are we to say to the world and, much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or cast system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise.”
A year later, on July 2, 1964, as President Lyndon Johnson prepared to sign the Civil Rights Act into law he reminded Americans of their historic and moral obligations. And he made it clear that, like it or not, a new day was dawning. Johnson told the nation:
“We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. But millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures but because of the color of their skin… But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
It took entirely too much suffering and death to force the federal government to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the unyielding demands for freedom by civil rights activists throughout the South and across the nation made it impossible for Washington to skirt the issue. Ultimately, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson stood bravely on the side of right, and they led the way for the landmark law that changed our nation. Let us all commit to protecting and preserving those changes for the good of all Americans.
Thank you for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.