The 1964 Civil Rights Act
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was initiated by President John F. Kennedy, who was elected in 1960. However, calls for this Act had started long before that and what President Kennedy did was to culminate what had already been started. For a long time, the black Americans had been neglected and seen to be inferior in most aspects of life. This had gone too far and statesmen and human rights activists had started to call for an end to this trend (History Learning Site, par 1-11). What was required was a registration that would see the Negroes, as they were commonly referred to in those days, get equal rights and privileges as the white Americans. Great personalities called on the American government to pass laws that would make America a land of freedom and equality. The call started gaining popularity from even the white statesmen and continually pressed for its passing. This was however not without stiff opposition from politicians who thought it was not a good idea to make the Negro equal to the white, mostly because of the negative stereotypes that had been circulating about them during that period. This debate on whether to pass the civil rights act was therefore to pass through a serious and heated debate before any progress could be achieved (History Learning Site, par 1-11). In this paper, an analysis of the 1964 civil rights act and aspects surrounding the same will be presented as well as the process this act went through before being passed.
The full description of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is
“An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America to provide relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes” (Risen, Par 1).
This Act was a landmark legislation that made it illegal to apply unequal application of voter registration requirements in the United States. It also outlawed racial segregation in places of work, schools and facilities which were meant to serve the general public, commonly known as public accommodations.
John F. Kennedy in his campaign of 1960 argued for the Civil Rights Acts. Due to this, more than 70% of the African American votes went to him. However, Kennedy did not fulfill his promise of enacting this law during the two years of his presidency. He had however created a firm ground for the enactment of the law, which came into use much later. It was in 1963 that the civil rights bill was brought into the house, and the president supported it fully. In a speech on television on 11th June 1963, the president made known to the public the results of a study which had been carried out previously in a very passionate way (The National Learning Archives Curve, par. 3)
This study was done by an organization created by the president in 1960 to look into the issues of Civil Rights. The Civil Rights Commission, as it was referred to, brought into light some open and disturbing facts about the state of black Americans in America. According to the report, 57% of African Americans lived in houses that were considered unacceptable. These were houses that an average white American would not have agreed to live in under any circumstances. They were temporary, lacked proper sanitation and most of the time built from waste material. This was more so due to the fact that it had become extremely hard for an African American to gain access to a housing mortgage. Institutions offering these financial services were discriminating on Americans of African origin mostly due to lack of trust (The National Learning Archives Curve, par 4).
The study also found out that the life expectancy of an African American was seven years less that of a white American. This was mostly due to the kind of life they led. Most African Americans did not have access to medical care and this made them deteriorate health wise. They could not afford good food due to the fact that most of them were unemployed or did menial jobs, which could not support them to the standards they would have liked to be. These factors coupled with the stresses of life were contributing to the reduced life expectancy among them. (The National Learning Archives Curve, par 5).
Infant mortality, according to the report, was twice a great as whites. This was due to lack of good medical care during birth. Most African Americans could not afford to give their children the care that they required, or they did not have the knowledge of the kind of care they should give to their children. Due to illiteracy, most African American mothers did not care to give their children vaccination and this translated to increased rates of infant mortality (Gary 29).
In most cases, the acceptable places for African American families to live were the ghettos. In case these families moved to another neighborhood which was not a ghetto, property values dropped significantly in these areas. This is because such an area would from then onwards be regarded as a low class area. It is therefore evident that most white Americans would not have liked to interact with their black counterparts. Such interaction was always considered demeaning (Gary 29)
All these facts faced the new president and he had to decide on how to deal with them head on. Here is the landmark statement that has been quoted as one of the strongest evidence of the president’s support for the bill.
“The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day; one third as much chance of completing college; one third as much chance of becoming a professional man; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter; and the prospects of earning only half as much (Frum 270.)
The President’s support of civil right in the previous years could be described as patchy. This is because he had opposed the 1957 Act by Eisenhower with an aim of keeping in with the Democrats hierarchy since he, just like Johnson, had plans to run for presidency. President Kennedy had to strategize on how to make the bill go through the house. There were however several factors that were hindering an immediate action on the issue of civil rights. First, it was clear that to most Americans, the issue of civil rights was not a priority. They never thought of this issue as an urgent one. In fact, one poll taken on “what should be done for America?” placed the issue of civil rights at the bottom. This showed that American had things they were considering more urgent and of priority than civil rights (Whalen 36)
Other factors included the Cuban missile crisis which had to be handled by the president. This took a lot of his time in office. Kennedy could not do anything too drastic since he had won the election with a very small majority. The margin on which he won (500,000 votes) meant that there was stiff opposition from his competitors in the presidency. There was no universal appraisal to his decisions and had to go through a long consultative process before passing any decision. America was also involved in the Vietnam War during this time, though it was not officially declared. The role it played here from the background was of more importance to the country than the civil rights issue. More time was therefore dedicated to this area and the issue of civil rights was abandoned for some time (Whalen 36)
Despite all this, President Kennedy introduced the bill in his civil rights speech of June 1963. In this speech, he asked for a legislation that would give all the Americans the right to be served in facilities meant to be open to the public. These included hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and other establishments of the same nature. The legislation was also meant to serve as a protection for right to vote by every American (Whalen 36).
The bill was sent to the congress on the 19th of June the same year. This bill by Kennedy included provisions to ban discrimination in accommodations that were public in nature. It was also supposed to enable the United States attorney general to be part of the lawsuits that were against the governments that operated a segregationist school system, including other important provisions (Congress Link, par 5)
However, some provisions that were deemed important by the civil rights leaders were not included in the bill. Such provision included, ending discrimination in private employment, protection against police cruelty, or conceding the Justice Department power to initiate integration or job bias lawsuits (Congress Link, par. 5).
Passage in the House of Representatives
The civil rights bill was sent to the House of Representatives, and then referred to the House Judiciary Committee. This committee was chaired by a Democrat from New York, Emmanuel Celler. The bill gathered a lot of strength after a series of hearings, and Celler’s committee was credited for strengthened the act. This committee added provisions to forbid racial favoritism in employment, and provided a greater security to black voters. This eliminated isolation in all publicly owned amenities and strengthened the anti-segregation clauses concerning public services such as lunch counters (Whalen 36).
Another thing the committee did was to add endorsement for the Attorney General to file lawsuits to defend persons against the dispossession of rights provided by the U.S. law or Constitution. These were some of the provisions included in Title III that were controversial for a long time. They had removed the preceding acts that had sought to address the civil rights issue, especially in 1957 and 1960. Organizations that were fighting for civil rights pressed for the adoption of these provisions since they were aware they could be used to give protection to peaceful protesters from police cruelty. Such provisions would also safeguard the rights of black voters in case the police intended to mishandle them (Whalen 36).
In November 1963, the bill was taken out of the Judiciary Committee. From the judiciary committee, it was referred to the Rules Committee, which was under the chairmanship of a Democrat and enthusiastic segregationist from Virginia, Howard W. Smith, who vowed to make sure the bill was shut down permanently. During this time, President Kennedy was assassinated. The whole world was shocked by this assassination. The vice president, Lyndon Johnson, was sworn in as the president on Air Force One. He had done his duties politically to prevent complete implementation of the bill. Though the new President was a Texan, he well knew that for the African Americans in America to advance, major civil rights act had to be adopted. One of the most powerful tools he used to push for the passing of the bill was the shock of President Kennedy’s death. He wanted to complete what Kennedy had started and fulfill his vision for America as a great society (Whalen 36).
Lyndon Johnson decided to use his experience in governmental politics and the “bully pulpit” he wielded as president to support the bill. This was evident in his first address to the congress which was on the 27th of November 1963. Taking to the legislators, he told them, “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” (Whalen 36).
Smith was stalling the bill unnecessarily in the Rules Committee. Due to this, Celler decided to file a petition that would seek to discharge the bill from the Rules Committee. Such a petition would only have been granted if a majority of the members gave assent to it by signing. If granted, it was to enable the bill to go straight to the house floor without considering Smith’s committee. At first, it was hard for Celler to collect enough signatures to secure the petition. This was because many congressmen who supported the bill did not want to violate the rules of the house procedures through the discharge petition. When the house went for the winter recess, Celler had 50 signatures pending (Whalen 36).
However, things changed significantly when the house came from the winter recess. There were several things that had brought a lot of difference in the way the legislators viewed the issue of the civil rights bill. First, the president’s public support of the bill meant a lot. It influenced the view of the same in the home districts of the representatives. All the legislators who were aligned to the president could not oppose the bill, at least not overtly. They could also not oppose it since they would have been going against the wish of most of their electorate. At this point, it was clear the bill would gather enough signatures to pass it through the rules committee. The chairman of this committee did not wait to see the house humiliate him that much. When he realized that the members will not go as per his will, he allowed it to pass the Rules Committee. On the 10th of February 1964, the bill was subjected to a vote in the house. Here, it passed by a vote of 290 to 130, and was therefore forwarded to the Senate (Congress Link, par 7).
Passage in the Senate
The president wanted to ensure the bill was passed the soonest possible. He therefore made sure that it would receive quick consideration from the senate. The normal procedure was first referring the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was under the chairmanship of a Democrat from Mississippi by the name James O. Eastland. It was evident however that this man could not allow the bill to pass to the senate floor. This prompted a new way to be adopted by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. His aim was to avert the bill from being relegated to the judiciary committee dividing line. First, he had waived the second reading of the bill, and this would have made it to be taken to the judiciary immediately. He however gave it a second reading on 26th February 1964. Upon this reading, he proposed that the bill need not go through the judiciary committee and instead be sent right away to the senate for discussion. This suggestion was made in absence of standard for instances when a second reading did not instantaneously follow the first. This move led to a filibuster, but all the same the senators allowed it to bypass the judiciary committee. They decided to concentrate on preventing the bill itself from passing (Risen, par 3)
On 30th March 1964, the bill came under full senate for discussion. The southern states were opposed to the bill and vowed to do everything in their power to stop the passage of the bill. These senators were Democrats from the “Southern Bloc” and one Republican senator. According to Richard Russell, their leader, they would resist to the bitter end any measures or movement that would seek to bring about the issue of racial amalgamation and social equality in the southern states. They did not believe in intermingling between the whites and the black, and this was the attitude with most residents from the south (Risen, Par 4)
The filibuster went on for 54 days. After this, several senators introduced an alternative bill that they thought would attract sufficient Republican swing votes hence bring an end to the filibuster. These included Senators Everett Dirksen, Thomas Kuchel, Hubert Humphrey, and Mike Mansfield. This alternative bill was much weaker than the one that was currently being discussed when it came to the power of the government to regulate the behavior of private enterprises. It was however not too weak to make the house re-evaluate the legislation (Risen, par 8)
Senator Robert Byrd completed an address that had taken him 14 hours and 13 minutes opposing the bill. The bill had taken the senate a very long time- 57 working days and six Saturdays. The bill’s manager and Democratic Whip, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota reported a day earlier that he had gained enough votes to end the debate and the filibuster. The final winning margin stood at 71-29, and this was a historical achievement (Risen, par 9)
Passing of the civil rights bill owed so much to the assassination of President Kennedy. Nevertheless, the bill had to endure the greatest attempt in Congress to critically deteriorate it. Johnson decided to do what anyone would have expected him to do. No one could expect him to oppose a bill that was so dear to the president, who by now had passed away, and the nation was still traumatized. He said that he would not allow anyone to use the bill to secure an easy life regardless of their color, though this was for the benefit of the Southern hardliners. The southern states all the same felt defeated (Lyndon, par 4)
The civil rights bill of 1964 speaks a lot about the legislation process in the United States. For a bill to become law, it must pass several stages and be subjected to many debates, especially if it touches on issues of great national importance. The bill must pass in the House of Representatives before being taken to the Senate for debate. Several committees may also be formed to look into aspects surrounding the bill. It also passes through the judicial commission which analyses its suitability to be passed on to the senate. When it finally gets to the senate for discussion, senators debate over it and if it passes, the president signs it and it becomes law. The Civil Rights Act was landmark legislation in America and has remained to be one of the most important and far reaching in terms of its effects.
Congress Link. Major Features of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Dirksen Congressional
Center. Web. 29 April, 2010, <http://www.congresslink.org/print_basics_histmats_civilrights64text.htm>.
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Visitors of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 2010. Web. 29, April, 2010
Risen, Clay. How the South was won. The Boston Globe, 2010. Web, 1 May 2010
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