Fighting for Equality: A Narrative of the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

By Alec Martschenko

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of legislation designed to ensure equal treatment of all minorities in both governmental and private business functions. The law provided for equal voting rights, ended the desegregation of public facilities and education, and outlawed discrimination in businesses with “public accommodations.” Like any such important piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came with its fair share of heated debate, vocal opposition, and political maneuvering. These issues were further aggravated by its racially charged nature and the social climate of the South.

The Historical Precedent

The call for this civil rights legislation did not arise out of nowhere. Instead, it stemmed from a long history of unrest reaching back to the Civil War. When the war ended, the newly reunited nation had to ensure that the South would not regress to its pre-war ways. To enforce this permanent change, Congress ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. These amendments, respectively, outlawed slavery, granted blacks citizenship and provided for equal protection and due process under the law, and gave voting rights to all males, regardless of color. Congress then passed a series of Civil Rights laws that enabled the government to enforce the provisions of the new amendments (“Major Features”).

Unfortunately, public support for the civil rights movement began to wane around the turn of the 20th century. Modifications were made to previous civil rights legislation and several Supreme Court decisions were handed down that limited the ability of the government to enforce civil rights laws. Many Southern states abused the system, using poll taxes or literacy tests to bar poor, uneducated blacks from voting (“Major Features”). Although there were protests and demonstrations, public opinion on the matter was not yet strong enough to force the government to make effective changes.

A Shift in Public Opinion

As the 20th century rolled on, the climate of public opinion slowly shifted in favor of increased civil rights legislation. A study from the National Opinion Research Center found that the number of northern whites who supported neighborhood integration rose dramatically from 42% to 72% between 1943 and 1963 (“Major Features”). This huge leap can be attributed to a variety of factors, including increased government action and civil rights activism.

This marked change in public opinion began gaining steam in 1945, as blacks were both returning from the war and migrating to northern cities where they had more of a political voice. The new political climate drove the House of Representatives to approve voting reform laws that would abolish poll taxes in 1945, 1947, and 1949, all of which were struck down by the Senate (“Major Features”). The Supreme Court also joined the movement in the 50s by ruling on several important civil rights cases, the most notable being Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which declared unconstitutional the segregation of public schools. The executive branch joined in the fight, with President John F. Kennedy promoting voting, employment, and other important civil rights for minorities through presidential orders. Additionally, civilian organizations—such as CORE, NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC—and mass protests across the nation—such as the Greensboro Sit-ins or Martin Luther King Jr’s demonstrations in Birmingham—contributed to a long-overdue change in public opinion to pro-civil rights. Finally, the movement had gained enough traction to be officially addressed in Congress, but the road to approval would be neither easy nor short (“Major Features”).

Proposal of the Bill

Prior to 1963, President John F. Kennedy had avoided the issue of civil rights legislation due to political pressures and worries about reelection. However, by mid-1963, the political climate had shifted far enough in favor of civil rights legislation that Kennedy was

President Kennedy addresses the nation on the topic of Civil Rights (Source)

able to officially show his support. In a press release the President urged Congress to consider a law that would ensure equal rights in voting, education, and access to public accommodations (“Major Features”). This action by Kennedy finally allowed work on a new Civil Rights Act to begin.

Although the bill had the full support of the President, it faced incredible opposition in Congress and getting it passed would prove to be no easy feat. The Justice Department was tasked with creating a proposal for a bill—with several important considerations. First, the bill had to address the specific civil rights reforms Kennedy had called for: voting rights, equal education, and public accommodation (“Major Features”). Second, and more importantly, the bill had to pass. Senate leaders blocked discussion of the bill to avoid a filibuster that would delay other important Senate business, so it was up to the House of Representatives to debate the bill (Graham 125).

In The Civil Rights Era, H. G. Graham outlines six obstacles the bill would have to overcome in order to be made into law. The bill would have to go through Emanuel Celler’s Subcommittee Number 5, then through the 35-man House Judiciary Committee. Assuming passage through the Judiciary Committee, the bill would move on to the Rules Committee, after which it would come before the full House of Representatives. If approved in the House, the bill would move to the Senate, where it would need cloture over a filibuster. Finally, the bill would be discussed in a joint Senate-House conference committee and hopefully ratified by both chambers of Congress (Graham 125). It was to be a long and treacherous journey to the President’s desk, but with some clever political maneuvering and bargaining, the bill would eventually find success.

Committee Politics

No other man fought harder in its initial stages to push the bill through Congress than Emanuel Celler, a Democrat from New York (“Biographical Directory”). As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Celler held the primary responsibility for the bill in its crucial early stages. Fortunately, he had a great civil rights track record, winning huge victories in both 1957 and 1959. Celler’s strategy was simple: in a subcommittee filled with his supporters, he would draft a strong, almost radical version of the bill to bring before the House. There, he would make bargains and concessions, appeasing his opponents while still achieving the original goals (Graham 125).

The plan started in Celler’s Subcommittee Number 5, where he strengthened the Justice Department’s original wording (“Major Features”). Among his improvements were the extension of voting rights to local and state elections and the addition of Title III—the desegregation of public facilities (Graham 127). The subcommittee passed the bill without a problem. In fact, even southern Democrats supported this newer version, believing it was so extreme that it would die on the floor of the House. (“Major Features”).

As the bill moved on to the full Judiciary Committee, the executive branch came out in agreement with the southern Democrats that the bill would never pass in its current state (“Major Features”). Attorney General Robert Kennedy (brother of President John F. Kennedy) appeared before the Judiciary Committee, pleading with them to propose a more moderate bill. Attorney General Kennedy called politicians such as Celler “professional liberals” with a “sort of death wish, really wanting to go down in flames” (Graham 127). Kennedy knew Republican support, especially in the Senate, would be crucial to the passage of the bill, so he pushed for several weakened amendments to make the bill more palatable to the more moderate Republicans (“Major Features”). The concessions made in the Judiciary Committee helped garner the necessary support to move forward.

On October 29, 1963, the Judiciary Committee approved the revised Civil Rights Act in a 23 to 11 vote (“Major Features”). It then moved forward to the third obstacle—the Rules Committee, chaired by Judge Howard Smith, an adamant Civil Rights opponent (Graham 128). However, before the Rules Committee could make a decision, an incident in Dallas rocked the nation. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Hours later, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President. Kennedy’s death would serve as a rallying call to many, especially after Johnson delivered the following words to a joint session of Congress:

First, 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. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.

 I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color. There could be no greater source of strength to this Nation both at home and abroad.

                                    The full text of this speech may be found here.

Johnson’s words and his expertise in the legislative process helped unite lawmakers enough to force Howard Smith, who had previously refused to act on the legislation, to set a hearing in the Rules Committee for the Civil Rights Act. On January 30, 1964, H.R. 7152—the Civil Rights Act—was cleared for debate on the floor of the House, and thus, the third barrier to passage was conquered (Graham 128; “Major Features”).

Compared to the drama of the committees, the bill passed through the House of Representatives relatively painlessly. On February 10, after nine days of debate and almost 100 rejected amendments, the house voted 290 to 130 in favor of the bill. Northern Democrats overwhelmingly supported the bill while Southern Democrats overwhelmingly opposed it (“Major Features”). Although passage through the House of Representatives was easy, proponents of the Civil Rights Act were about to face their biggest challenge yet—avoiding a Senate filibuster.

The rules on debate in the two chambers of Congress are not the same. In the Senate, a senator may filibuster, speaking indefinitely on any subject, to prevent a vote from taking place. Cloture—ending the debate and starting a vote—requires the support of two-thirds of the senators. However, in order to get the bill to the floor of the Senate in the first place, the Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield gave the bill top priority, allowing it to skip the heavily conservative committees where it would have likely been pigeonholed (“The Civil Rights Act”). In March, the bill finally reached the Senate floor. Even though it did have majority support, the Civil Rights Act faced fierce opposition from the “southern bloc,” a group of nineteen senators led by Richard Dussell. These Senators, staying true to the desires of their constituents, filibustered for 54 days , arguing primarily against Title VII, which provided for fair employment practices (“Major Features;” “The Civil Rights Act”).

Despite the majority of Senators supporting the bill, the pro-civil rights faction could not muster up the proper number of votes for cloture for the law in its current state. In order to overcome this last obstacle, it became clear that negotiations would need to be made. Senator Everett Dirksen orchestrated the negotiations for a compromise bill, meeting with key swing voters to ensure enough votes for cloture (“The Civil Rights Act”). Furthermore, Dirksen had to keep in mind how the House would react to any changes—ideally, he needed to draft a bill that the House would immediately accept without debate. On June 10, the Senate finally voted for cloture and a week later passed the bill in a 73-27 vote (“Major Features”).

After fighting through committees and subcommittees, through fierce debate and never-ending filibusters, the bill reached its last obstacle. Now, it needed only approval in the House to finally become a law. The compromise bill from the Senate was quickly voted on in

Roll Call in the House on the final version of Civil Rights Act (Source)

the House of Representatives (“The Civil Rights Act”). Because only minor changes had been made, Dirksen’s version of the bill was easily passed, avoiding the dreaded Senate-House conference committee. Just hours later on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law (“Major Features”). This historic piece of legislation ensured voting rights for millions of Americans, outlawed discrimination in public accommodations and federal programs, and worked towards the end of segregation in America (“Major Features”). Its fight through Congress was in a way symbolic of the civil rights movement at large. It started with a few vocal minorities fighting fervently for what they knew was right. Gradually, the movement picked up steam while still facing fierce opposition. Eventually, right won out over wrong, and, although the fight for equality was far from over, important steps were made in the right direction.


Works Cited

“CELLER, Emanuel – Biographical Information.” Biographical Directory of the United States Senate. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.

“Major Features of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Congress: The Basics. The Dirksen Congressional Center. Web.

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964. United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Web. 4 Dec. 2013

Graham, Hugh D. “The Civil Rights Era.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. 125-152. Print.

Johnson, Lyndon B. “Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States.” Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

Kennedy, John F. Press Release of Kennedy’s Request., 1963. Dirksen Congressional Center. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Tushnet, Mark V. “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 195-197. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.

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