Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.
Forty-seven years ago this past Saturday, Martin Luther King, Jr., touched a nation with his inspiring words. Just six months later in February of 1964, one small but powerful word was added to the House version of the divisive Civil Rights Act.
Representative Howard Smith of Virginia sponsored an amendment to the bill—he added the word “sex” to the list of categories such as race and religion that the employers couldn’t consider when hiring someone. He thought the addition was so ludicrous it would kill the bill on the floor.
Smith’s track record on civil rights was clear: he protested Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1957 when another civil rights bill (this one on voting) had come before his rules committee, he had said, “The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people who had equal intelligence . . . as the white people of the South.”
But in 1964—whatever his intent for including the word, whether to torpedo a bill he opposed or even to try to gain some benefit from a bill he knew would pass—the word “sex” stuck around in this civil rights bill.
The bill cleared the House and Senate and later, when a conference committee suggested removing the word, committee members Representative Martha Griffiths and Senator Margaret Chase Smith insisted it remain.
With or without “sex,” the bill was hugely contested. One out of every three members in the House opposed it. But on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, ending racial segregation—and unexpectedly guaranteeing gender equality thanks to Howard Smith.