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The 1964 Civil Rights Act and Dismantling the Jim Crow State

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on. Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office (WHPO).

Remarks upon Signing the Civil Rights Bill (July 2, 1964). Lyndon Baines Johnson.

After surviving an 83-day filibuster, forty-eight years ago today, the Senate finally passed a compromised version of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a critical legal measure that contributed to the dismantlement of the Jim Crow State. The bill ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. It also required equal employment opportunities to be provided by employers and laid the groundwork for passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

President Johnson began campaigning for civil rights legislation almost immediately upon assuming office. President Kennedy had sent the bill to Congress in June 1963, but was unable to get it passed before his assassination on November 22. In his first address to a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963, President 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. 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.

After the Senate finally passed its version of the bill, President Johnson urged House Minority Leader Charles Halleck in a phone call, to push through quick votes on several other bills pending before the House and to pass the Civil Rights Act in time to have a signing ceremony for July 4th. Halleck noted in the call that the president would receive all of the political credit for the law’s passage.

After a bipartisan coalition took control of the House Rules Committee, a panel reported a resolution accepting the Senate version of the bill and ruled that only a single hour of debate on the bill would be allowed on the House floor. On July 2, the House voted 289-126 to accept the Senate version of the bill. On the same day President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. President Johnson addressed the nation about the meaning and purpose of the law in the signing ceremony:

The purpose of the law is simple.
It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others.
It does not give special treatment to any citizen.
It does say the only limit to a man's hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability.
It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public. …

Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.

But advocacy for the bill and its passage triggered a tumultuous election year. Voter registration drives throughout the summer exacerbated racial tensions across the South. The 1964 presidential campaign became, in essence, a referendum on the future of civil rights: whereas President Johnson had signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, the Republican nominee Senator Barry Goldwater had voted against the bill. In an October phone call with McGeorge Bundy, the special assistant for national security, President Johnson expressed concern about the Goldwater campaign’s use of racial propaganda and intimidation. The president described one attack ad to Bundy over the phone: 

“LBJ’s Civil Rights Bill and You: Employees Read This.” Then they’ve got a fine-looking, honest, clean, pink-cheeked boy. They’ve got “Fired” under him in a square, right under him. Then they’ve got an …—says “Hired.” And it says “Employees Read This.” Let me see what it says. [reading] “[Unclear]...Negro youth marked hired and unhappy white youth labor fired.” [Bundy chuckles in exasperation] “The telegram made public” . . . Lets see  . . . [unclear] . . . “Did you know that Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill can get you fired from your job and give it to a person of another race, no matter what ability you have to do your job, or how much seniority you have on your job? You can lose your job because Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill: This is your last chance. Vote to put an end to racial favoritism. Vote to protect your job. Vote to protect your family. Vote to protect your home. Employers read this. This is your last chance, save your freedom to run your own business as you choose.”

In a phone call with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the president also described flyers distributed by the so-called Negro Protective League throughout the South:

And they’ve got out a[n] instruction from the Negro Protective League. That says if any Negro goes and votes, that the Protective League just wants to inform him as their friend that if he’s ever had a traffic ticket, if he’s ever been under suspicion, if he’s ever been speeding, if he’s ever had an over-parking ticket, if he ever hasn’t paid his taxes on time, if he’s ever been discharged from employment, that he’ll have to report right away to the Sheriff, and that these things will have to be settled before they can clear his record to vote.

The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights bill was also a critical juncture for the eventual realignment of Southern states into the Republican Party. As President Johnson told his aide Bill Moyers after he signed the law, “I think we've just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours.” Resentful of the party’s civil rights platform, the overwhelming majority of the ‘lily-white’ state delegations of Mississippi and Alabama stormed out of the Democratic National Convention in August 1964. Furthermore, localized violence and intimidation contained black voter registration enough to guarantee that Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina would vote for Goldwater.

Despite some shortcomings – the law lacked substantial enforcement mechanisms, relying primarily on voluntary compliance, for example – the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a landmark measure that effected constitutional change. Yet, it is worth recalling that critical features of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 laid the groundwork for the 1964 Act. While it was a “big bang event,” the assault on the “Jim Crow State” had been ongoing for decades, as Miller Center GAGE faculty member Jeffery A. Jenkins has argued. However, as Jenkins notes, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was critical for dismantling the South’s segregated society.

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