60 years ago, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed American justice (2024)

Hours after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the House of Representatives on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson entered the East Room of the White House.

Dressed in a black suit and tie, Johnson sat at a wooden desk in the center of the room paneled with fluted pilasters and heavy gold drapes. In the crowd before him were lawmakers of both parties and civil rights leaders who had championed the bill, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., NAACP leaders Roy Wilkins and Clarence Maurice Mitchell Jr., and Urban League president Whitney M. Young Jr.

At 6:45 p.m., Johnson looked into teleprompters and for the next 13 minutes delivered what would become a historic speech, explaining the law’s significance. The act, deemed the most important piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, would prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Further, it would forbid discrimination in voting, public accommodations, public facilities, public education and federally financed programs.

Johnson called the act a “proud triumph” in a “long struggle for freedom” and quest for equal rights for Black people in America.

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“We believe that all men are created equal,” Johnson said. “Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.”

The law, which would cement equal opportunity for employment, would have far-reaching implications. Eight years later, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act would be signed into law, prohibiting discrimination based on sex in education and in programs receiving federal funds.

Johnson called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.”

Its passage had been a long time coming for Johnson. In 1957, when Johnson was Senate majority leader, he’d engineered passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which, according to the National Archives, was “a feat generally regarded as impossible until he did it.”

Three years later, Johnson brokered passage of the 1960 Civil Rights Act, which had little enforcement power.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy became president. “But Kennedy’s narrow election victory and small working margin in Congress left him cautious,” the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum states. “He was reluctant to lose Southern support for legislation on many fronts by pushing too hard on civil rights legislation.”

Then came a series of acts of racist terror that shocked the country. On May 2, 1963, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala., ordered police to attack Black protesters, including children. Televised footage showed police officers beating Black protesters with batons, police dogs attacking protesters and powerful fire hoses pummeling Black people.

On June 11, 1963, Kennedy delivered a televised speech proposing a civil rights act.

That night, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, was fatally shot by a white supremacist hiding in a honeysuckle bush across the street from the Evers home in Jackson.

Eight days later, on June 19, 1963, Kennedy sent a comprehensive bill for civil rights to Congress. “But fierce opposition caused the bill to stall for several months,” according to the King Institute at Stanford University.

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Political pressure for civil rights intensified. On Aug. 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people rallied during the March on Washington to demand jobs, economic justice, voting rights and equal protection under the law.

In his speech at the march, King demanded the country live up to its ideals and promises.

“We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” King said. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as White men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

John Lewis, national chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, demanded in a speech that a federal enforcement clause be added to the civil rights bill. Without it, he said, “there’s nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstration.”

The next month, four girls were killed and dozens injured when white supremacists exploded dynamite in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

In the wake of the bombing, some members of Congress again pushed for a civil rights act, but it still appeared likely to stall.

Then on Nov. 22, 1963, the world shifted. At about 12:30 p.m., Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Hours later, aboard Air Force One, Johnson was sworn in as president.

Five days after the assassination, Johnson delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress, calling for passage of the civil rights act. “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,” Johnson said.

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On Jan. 18, 1964, Johnson met with civil rights leaders in the Oval Office.

“Lyndon B. Johnson was no racist, but he had not been a civil rights hero, either,” Bill Moyers, a former White House assistant and press secretary under Johnson, recalled in 2008. Ultimately, he said, “King marched and Johnson maneuvered and Congress folded.”

On June 19, 1964, after a long filibuster, the civil rights bill finally passed the Senate. On July 2, the House passed it as well.

Hours later, Johnson pulled up a chair in the East Room and spoke to the country: “My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail.”

After the speech, Johnson remained sitting. Behind him crowded members of Congress and civil rights leaders.

The bill was unfurled on the desk before him. Johnson coughed, then took a fountain pen from a row of pens lining the desk, dipped it in ink and wrote a stroke of a letter. He continued signing, using different pens for each stroke and offering them to the politicians and activists standing behind him.

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Later, Johnson headed to a meeting with civil rights leaders. As he walked, he pulled Moyers aside, inviting him to the Johnson ranch in Texas, Moyers recalled to the Guardian last year.

When Moyers boarded the president’s plane, he saw Johnson reading headlines about the passage of the Civil Rights Act. “Quite a day, Mr. President,” Moyers remembered saying.

Johnson, Moyers recalled, responded, ‘Well, I think we may have lost the South for your lifetime — and mine.’ ”

60 years ago, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed American justice (2024)
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