The Civil Rights Act of 1964

“Stronger than all armies is an idea whose time has come.” ­­–Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, June 10, 1964

This week (June 19) the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after surviving an 83-day filibuster by opponents of the bill — mostly southerners. It is still the longest filibuster in Senate history.  On the filibuster’s last day, June 10th, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, a leading civil rights opponent, had spoken against the bill for 14 hours straight.

It was not Senator Byrd’s finest hour, for when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in early July, it outlawed racial discrimination in public places, employment, education and voting rights.  Rightfully, it is considered the greatest act of Johnson’s presidency.

Indeed, it is probable that only Johnson could have achieved this victory.  First, he was a southerner himself with an unblemished record of opposing all previous civil rights legislation, which — as was later the case when the rabidly anti-communist Richard Nixon went to China — helped mute criticism from his southern brethren.  What’s more, Johnson had once been among the Senate’s most powerful majority leaders, meaning he knew exactly what levers to pull and skids to grease, as well was whom to flatter, whom to threaten and whom to entice with political favors.  And to get this legislation passed he was willing to use every trick in the book.

Including invoking the memory of his dead and martyred predecessor, John Kennedy, under whose administration this civil rights legislation had been introduced.  By reminding the nation that this was “Kennedy’s bill,” Johnson put political pressure on Democrats to support their fallen leader’s goal of a more just society.

He also was helped by nationwide polls showing that America in 1964 was at last ready to support civil rights; in one poll 68 percent of Americans thought additional legislation banning racial discrimination was needed.  And finally he was helped by his own moral conversion. Johnson came to understand that denying African-Americans the equal rights they ostensibly had been guaranteed by the 14th Amendment was incompatible with his dream of creating a “Great Society” for all citizens.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was hardly the last word in the civil rights movement, but it was an honest start, and given the obstacles it overcame, a historic achievement — one made more so by the courageous act of Senator Clair Engle from California, who, during the vote on ending the filibuster, could not speak because of a brain tumor that would soon kill him.  Raising a near-paralyzed arm he pointed to his right eye, thereby signaling “Aye” in the affirmative. By such political courage and physical courage is history sometimes made.