THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted on July 2, 1964, was a landmark piece of legislation. The act outlawed major forms of discrimination against African Americans and women, including racial segregation. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, workplaces, and public facilities. The government's powers to enforce the act were initially weak, but were augmented by later legislation. Congress asserted its authority to legislate about civil rights under three parts of the United States Constitution: its power to regulate interstate commerce under Article One (section 8), its duty to guarantee all citizens equal protection of the laws (under the Fourteenth Amendment) and its duty to protect voting rights (under the Fifteenth Amendment). The Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, marking perhaps the most important domestic achievement of his "Great Society" program. The bill would soon be followed by the equally momentous Voting Rights Act, which effectively ended the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S LEGACY
President John F. Kennedy called for a civil rights act in his civil rights speech of June 11, 1963. Kennedy asked for legislation "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments," as well as "greater protection for the right to vote." Kennedy's civil rights bill included provisions to ban discrimination in public accommodations and to enable the U.S. Attorney General to launch lawsuits against state governments which operated segregated school systems. However, it did not include a number of provisions deemed essential by civil rights leaders, including protection against police brutality, ending discrimination in private employment, or granting the Justice Department power to initiate desegregation or make job discrimination lawsuits.
In late November of 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy changed the political situation. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, utilized his experience in legislative politics and his pulpit as president to support the bill. In his first address to Congress on November 27, 1963, Johnson told the legislators, "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."
Johnson, who wanted the bill passed as soon as possible, ensured that the bill would be quickly considered by the Senate. The bill came before the full Senate for debate on March 30, 1964 and the "Southern Bloc" of 18 southern Democratic Senators and one Republican Senator led by Richard Russell (D-GA) launched a filibuster to prevent its passage. Said Russell: "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."
The bill finally passed with six wavering senators providing a four-vote victory margin, the final tally stood at 71 to 29. Never in history had the Senate been able to muster enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill. And only once in the 37 years since 1927 had it agreed to cloture for any measure. The amendment passed with the votes of Republicans and Southern Democrats. The final law passed with the votes of Republicans and Northern Democrats.
The bill divided and engendered a long-term change in the demographics of both parties. President Johnson realized that supporting this bill would risk losing the South's overwhelming support of the Democratic Party. Although majorities in both parties voted for the bill, there were notable exceptions. Republican senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona voted against the bill, remarking, "You can't legislate morality." Goldwater had supported previous attempts to pass Civil Rights legislation in 1957 and 1960 as well as the 24th Amendment outlawing the poll tax. Civil rights supporters dismissed Goldwater's individual liberty argument by noting that he expressed no opposition to segregation laws forcing business owners to operate on a segregated basis. Most Democrats from the Southern states opposed the bill and led an unsuccessful 83-day filibuster, including Senators Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN), J. William Fulbright (D-AR), and Robert Byrd (D-WV), who personally filibustered for 14 hours straight.