The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Against all Odds

This week, (June 19) the U.S. Senate passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to appreciate the magnitude of this achievement you need to understand the obstacles in its path.

First, legislation must pass in both the House and Senate, which usually pass very different versions of the bill. A House-Senate committee must work out those differences before it can become a law, which is usually a drawn-out process.

But even before legislation can come to the House or Senate floor it first has to be considered by the relevant House and Senate committees, and in 1964 almost all committees related to civil rights were controlled by southerners who had no intention of passing such legislation.  And so they dawdled.  Congressman Howard Smith from Virginia, for example, was chairman of the House Rules Committee, and because no legislation can go to the House floor without that committee reporting it out, Smith made sure the civil rights legislation stayed in his committee.

Another southern strategy was to hold other bills — bills northern politicians wanted passed — hostage to civil rights legislation.  Any bill not passed in the two years each Congress is in session must start over in the next Congress, which means reintroduction, new rounds of debate and negotiation in both branches, and (hopefully) passage by both branches.  By stalling on legislation northerners supported — funding for home-heating subsidies in northern cities, for example — southerners could pressure northern politicians to withdraw the civil rights bill or see their pet legislation die in that Congress.

To that end, in 1964 an appropriations bill important to northerners was sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which referred it to a subcommittee chaired by John McClellan of Arkansas, who referred it to a subcommittee of his subcommittee, which suddenly became too busy to hold hearings on the bill.   Meaning more delay because a subcommittee must report out a bill before the full committee can vote on it.  Thus, the message was clear to northern liberals. Withdraw civil rights or we stall your priority legislation to death.

And then there was the filibuster, which can delay legislation forever, and those powerful southerners in Congress were not only adept at filibustering actual legislation, they were also adept at filibustering the original motion to bring that legislation to the floor!  Filibusters can only be surmounted by a cloture vote to end debate and force a vote on the bill, but as those southerners well knew, never in the Senate’s history had a civil rights bill achieved cloture.

All of this, and more, then-President Lyndon Johnson faced and overcame, which is why — controversial as his presidency was — Johnson was arguably the greatest legislator to serve as president.