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Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted 50 years ago July 2, is honored in Washington

President Johnson signs 1964 Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964 during nationally televised White House ceremony.
LBJ Library photo by O.J. Rapp

The 1964 Civil Rights Act, hailed as the most important legislation in the 20th century, was enacted 50 years ago July 2, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it during a nationally televised ceremony and said, "Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had termed the civil rights bill "the child of a storm, the product of the most turbulent motion the nation has ever known in peacetime."

President Obama said in a statement on the July 2 anniversary, "...few pieces of legislation have defined our national identity as distinctly, or as powerfully."

The nation's first African American President added, "It transformed the concepts of justice, equality, and democracy for generations to come."

The most sweeping civil rights legislation in a century since Reconstruction outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It effectively ended segregation in schools, workplaces, and public facilities.

Here's how and where to learn more, and to honor the momentous law:

National Archives

The landmark legislation's signature page and first page are on display now in the National Archives' Records of Rights exhibit within the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery.

Only two pages of the 29-page act will be displayed through Sept. 16, due to sensitivity to light. And the original signature page will be shown only through July 13, then a facsimile replaces it.

The Archives is also presenting a film screening and discussion, "Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment" on Tuesday, July 29, at 7 P.M. at its William G. McGowan Theater.

Robert Drew’s cinéma vérité work chronicles how President John F. Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy clashed with Governor George Wallace over racial integration at the University of Alabama in 1963. (1963; 52 minutes).

Following the screening, NPR's Michele Norris Johnson will moderate a discussion featuring Peggy Wallace, daughter of the late Gov. George Wallace, and Sharon Malone, sister of the late Vivian Malone Jones, the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama, class of 1965. Sharon Malone, an obstetrician/gynecologist, is also the wife of Attorney General Eric Holder.

National Press Club

On July 8, Todd S. Purdum, author of "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964" (Henry Holt and Co., 2014) told a National Press Club audience, "President Kennedy was a very reluctant convert to Civil Rights when he introduced the legislation on June 11, 1963. He didn't want to jeopardize the rest of his agenda...But once he plunged in, he plunged in entirely."

Announcing the legislation, President Kennedy "gave a great speech -- he was the first President to call it a moral issue."

Would the bill have passed if President Kennedy had not been assassinated? That's the most asked question, the author said, and answered it like this. "I think it probably would have passed, maybe not as strong a bill, and maybe not until after his 1964 re-election."

President Johnson "was very canny in exploiting the assassination" to help the bill move forward. Purdum termed President "a most unlikely tribune for the cause..." But within days of President Kennedy's assassination, Johnson "was telling friends, 'I'm going to be the president who finishes what Lincoln began.'"

Purdum noted that "Today we take it for granted; we don't realize how radical and revolutionary it was...Overnight, the South was transformed...desegregated with a pen stroke" when President Johnson signed it into law.

One black soldier at Fort Benning, Georgia, who had been refused service at a hamburger shop, was indeed served two days after the law was enacted. That soldier who was served on July 4 was Colin Powell, the author said.

Purdum, a contributing editor at "Vanity Fair" and senior writer at "Politico", set the scene for the landmark legislation. "Civil rights was the single most controversial issue of the day. It was not at all clear that (passage) would happen. There were many, many chances for it to go off the rails."

Back then, "The country was every bit divided as it is today." But there was "civility in Congress. It was a lot harder to call someone a dirty name if they'd had dinner at his house the night a fundamental way, they respected each other... People could disagree without being disagreeable."

"The Civil Rights Act stands as a lesson for our own troubled times about what is possible when patience, bipartisanship, and decency rule the day," says the National Press Club.

Another excellent new book on the topic is "The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act" (Bloomsbury Press, 2014) by Clay Risen. An editor at "The New York Times", Risen's first book was "A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination."

In "The Bill of the Century", Risen writes that early morning the day after enactment, an African American youth walked into the historic Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, and got a haircut at its barbershop. The day before, he had been refused service at the same shop.

Within weeks, A black civil rights leader in Atlanta walked into the restaurant at an exclusive downtown hotel, the Henry Grady, "and was served like he had been coming there for years."

"An entire social system built on oppressing and excluding blacks had been outlawed with the stroke of a pen, and blacks were amazed to find how easy it fell apart," Risen notes.

Yes, there were "pockets of resistance". In Greenwood, Mississippi, officials drained a formerly whites-only public pool rather than open it to black children.

Atlanta restaurant owner Lester Maddox and a throng of supporters wielded axe handles to chase away three blacks the day after the law was enacted. After losing a year-long battle challenging the law's constitutionality, he closed his Pickrick restaurant rather than integrate it. Maddox was elected Governor of Georgia.

However, at the end of that July 1964, a Justice Department report concluded "The general picture is one of large-scale compliance."

Risen concludes his introduction by saying, "The Civil Rights Act did not solve American racism, something the country is still dealing with -- and may never overcome. But it moved America forward to an extent that no one, at its outset, could have expected."

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress will open a year-long exhibition "The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom" on Sept. 10. The free exhibition will highlight the legal and legislative challenges and victories leading to its passage, shedding light on the individuals, both prominent leaders and private citizens, who participated in the decades-long campaign for equality. It will feature more than 200 items, including correspondence and documents from civil-rights leaders and organizations, photographs, newspapers, legal briefs, drawings, and posters.

For more info: National Archives, David M. Rubenstein Gallery, Records of Rights, Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. 866-272-6272. National Press Club, Book Discussion: Todd Purdum - "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964", July 8 at 6:30 P.M. U.S. Senate's "Civil Rights Act at 50". U.S. House of Representatives' "The Civil Rights Act of 1964". Video and text of President Johnson's speech to a joint session of Congress, imploring passage of Civil Rights Act, five days after President Kennedy's assassination. LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, 2313 Red River Street, Austin, Texas. 512-721-0200. Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Southwest Gallery, 2nd floor, 10 First Street, S.E., Washington, D.C.

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