A Deeper Look at the Politicians Who Passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Fifty years later, a dive into what it took to make the historic legislation law

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of legislation, was a long time in the making, and the passage of the bill required the political machinations of an assortment of Republicans, Democrats, Northerners and Southerners, congressmen, senators, presidents and activists. The photo above, taken by White House press office photographer Cecil Stoughton, shows the wide range of politicans and private citizens it took to guide the Civil Rights Act from a presidential promise to a national law.

Congress had considered, and failed to pass, a civil rights bill every year from 1945 to 1957. In 1957, Congress finally managed to pass a limited Civil Rights Act, which it added to in 1960, but these bills offered black Americans only modest gains. It wasn't until 1963, in a televised speech, that President Kennedy called for a robust Civil Rights Act. Kennedy began his address by talking about the two black students who had recently enrolled in the University of Alabama, but needed the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen in order to safely attend classes.

"It ought to be possible…for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated," the president said, noting that while he had recently met with dozens of business leaders in an effort to persuade them to voluntarily adopt measures to end discrimination, he would also bring the matter before Congress.

“Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act,” President Kennedy said, “to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law."

Eight days later, on June 19, 1963, Emmanuel Celler, a New York Democrat, introduced H.R. 7152—what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964—to the House of Representatives. But the political fight over the bill's passage was just beginning.

Kennedy knew that he would need support from both sides of the aisle to ensure the bill's passage, and wasted no time recruiting allies to his purpose. One such ally was William McCulloch, a Republican congressman from a conservative district in rural Ohio who would become one of the civil rights movement’s most ardent supporters. During President Kennedy’s administration, McCulloch worked with the Democrat-led White House to ensure Republican support of the Civil Rights Act in Congress.

Held in August of 1963, the March on Washington was a historic moment for the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King, Jr., riding the momentum of the occasion, wasted no time turning an eye toward the passage of the comprehensive civil rights bill sitting before Congress. In a piece titled "In a Word—Now," King wrote of the Civil Rights Act as being an integral part of the movement's present fight: "What next? The hundreds of thousands who marched in Washington marched to level barriers. They summed up everything in a word—NOW. What is the content of NOW? Everything, not some things, in the President’s civil rights bill is part of NOW."

Celler, who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, helped ensure that the bill had favorable hearings at the committee level in the House—perhaps too favorable. Liberal Democrats and Republicans on the committee combined to push the bill in a more liberal direction, calling for a fair employment section that would ban discrimination by private employers, as well as a section that expanded the power of the Attorney General to intervene in Southern civil rights cases. Fearing that the bill would become impossible to pass, Kennedy himself had to intervene, creating a compromise that kept the fair employment section but limited the power of the Justice Department.

The bill passed from the House Judiciary Committee to the House Rules Committee on November 20, 1963. But some—both in Congress and the White House—worried that a strong, liberal bill would stand no chance of making it through the legislative process. Others, like Congressman Arch Moore, a Republican from West Virginia, didn't agree, as Moore told the press that if the House sent the Senate "a water bill," the Senate would send back "a water-water bill."

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Texas, and as the nation mourned the loss of their president, the future of the Civil Rights Act seemed less certain than ever before.

The bill’s fate was saved when President Lyndon Johnson decided to throw his full political weight behind its passage. In his address to a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963 (five days after Kennedy's death), Johnson was resolute, declaring, "We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law." Still, when the House adjourned in December of 1963, no decision had been made.

Using his experience as a former Senate majority leader, President Johnson worked to help petition for the bill to be discharged from the House Rules Committee. The committee's chairman, segregationist Howard Smith from Virginia, had allowed the bill to fester aimlessly. On February 10, the House finally passed the bill. The bill ran into steely opposition in the Senate, facing a 60-day debate and a 14-hour-long filibuster led by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia—a Democrat and former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The debate over the Civil Rights Act is still, to this day, the longest debate in Senate history. President Johnson, for his part, helped break the filibuster that kept the bill locked in the Senate by finding ways to compromise with Southern lawmakers. On June 10, the Senate invoked cloture, breaking the filibuster; the bill passed through the Senate shortly after.

Nine days later, the Senate approved the Civil Rights Bill, but the bill, having had some changes made to it, had to be sent back to the House for another vote. In a phone conversation two days after the bill made it through the Senate, President Johnson called Rep. Charles Halleck (R-IN), urging the Republican—who was also the House minority leader—to push the bill through. Johnson wanted the bill to be signed into law by July 4—leaving enough time for it to be enacted before the Republican National Convention, which was to begin July 13. On July 2, 1964, the House adopts the Senate’s version of the bill by a vote of 289-126.

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