What a bittersweet day it was 50 years ago for Robert Kennedy. The events of July 2, 1964 should have filled him with pride and gratification. But, as the attorney general sat stone-faced at President Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he could barely bring himself to look at the chief executive. A mere six months had passed since Bobby Kennedy had accompanied his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy, into the same White House space (the East Room), where, still wearing her blood-stained suit, she had brought her assassinated husband home from Dallas.
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the signing of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which provided for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, creed, or national origin. President Lyndon B. Johnson had failed to persuade Congress to pass a civil rights bill in 1966 with a fair housing provision. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and amidst the riots in the wake of his assassination, Congress passed civil rights legislation, which included Title VIII that banned discrimination in the sale and rental of 80 percent of housing. The bill also contained anti-riot provisions and protected persons exercising specific rights—such as attending school or serving on a jury—as well as it protected civil rights workers urging others to exercise these rights. The bill included the Indian Bill of Rights, which extended constitutional protections to Native Americans not covered by the Bill of Rights.
Upon signing the bill into law, President Johnson delivered remarks to Congress and the nation on the progress made:
I shall never forget that it was more than 100 years ago when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—but it was a proclamation; it was not a fact.
In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we affirmed through law that men equal under God are also equal when they seek a job, when they go to get a meal in a restaurant, or when they seek lodging for the night in any State in the Union…
In the Civil Rights Act of 1965, we affirmed through law for every citizen in this land the most basic right of democracy—the right of a citizen to vote in an election in his country. In the five States where the Act had its greater impact, Negro voter registration has already more than doubled.
Now, with this bill, the voice of justice speaks again.
It proclaims that fair housing for all—all human beings who live in this country—is now a part of the American way of life.
On a recent trip to Mesa, Arizona, I found myself at the Natural History Museum. Most of the museum is in the old city hall building where one exhibit was the territorial jail, an intimidating series of metal prison cells. A sign hanging on the wall read that Carl Hayden was once sheriff of Maricopa County from 1907-1912. Wait…I know that name as my political history brain began to click. After some quick digging, I was impressed by the fact that Hayden and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii were the only 20th century politicians who saw their territory become a state, became their state’s first Representative in the House, and served long terms in Congress.
Hayden’s state-wide political career took off, in part, because he was sheriff. He got to know the law enforcement and court officials who would help him win a seat in the House of Representatives in 1912. Hayden then served as Senator from 1927 until his retirement in 1969 – 56 consecutive years. It is unusual to have such longevity, but also to experience the vast changes in the country while serving in Congress. When he left the sheriff’s office, Maricopa County was a quiet farming community. By the time he departed the Senate, Hayden left a considerable legacy, mainly from the federal highway system and the Central Arizona Project that brought water to Arizona from the Colorado River, thus creating modern Arizona as we know it. Both of these issues are back in the headlines today as the state’s population nearly doubled in the last two decades, now at over 6 million people. Traffic congestion and air pollution remain a concern, especially in the state’s population center, Maricopa County. Furthermore, Arizona could face water shortages due to climate change and growing demand.
In our Presidential Recordings series at the Miller Center, we hear a couple of interactions between Senator Hayden and President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. This was a crucial year as Johnson was facing Arizona’s junior senator, Barry Goldwater, in the 1964 presidential election. In one conversation, Johnson asked Hayden for help in Arizona, but Goldwater won the state anyway. However, Goldwater managed to win only five other states in the wake of Johnson’s landslide.