Today’s post comes from David Steinbach, intern in the National Archives History Office.
On July 2, 1964, with Martin Luther King, Jr., directly behind him, President Lyndon Johnson scrawled his signature on a document years in the making—the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation.
The first and the signature pages of the act will be on display at the National Archives Rubenstein Gallery in Washington, DC, until September 17, 2014. These 50-year-old sheets of paper represent years of struggle and society’s journey toward justice.
The most comprehensive civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction era, the Civil Right Act finally gave the Federal Government the means to enforce the promises of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. The act prohibited discrimination in public places, allowed the integration of public facilities and schools, and forbade discrimination in employment.
But such a landmark congressional enactment was by no means achieved easily. Indeed, developments within the civil rights movement were critical in motivating the bill’s movement through Congress. The push for legislation accelerated in May 1963, when nightly news broadcasts displayed footage of Eugene “Bull” Connor cracking down on demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.
In this atmosphere, President John F. Kennedy demanded a strong civil rights bill in a national address on June 11: “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.”
Pressure for legislation continued to build when thousands of Americans engaged in the peaceful March on Washington on August 28. Two weeks later, a bomb in Birmingham killed four young African American girls. With civil rights at the forefront of the national consciousness, these and other developments encouraged House Democrats to introduce amendments strengthening the bill.
External pressure made up only one chapter in the story of the bill’s passage, as supporters of the legislation had a battle of their own to wage in Congress. Just five days after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Johnson urged lawmakers “to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color.”
Despite the President’s support, the bill encountered significant difficulties in both chambers of Congress. It took a 70-day hearing process for the legislation to clear the House in February 1964.
As soon as the bill entered the Senate, southern senators commenced a 60-day filibuster—the longest continuous debate in Senate history. With the help of Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey, supporters softened language concerning government regulation of private organizations and finally won over a bloc of conservative lawmakers.
After clearing the Senate and House, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2. Thanks to public pressure and political maneuvering, the nation finally had a substantive civil rights bill.
This 50th anniversary represents a rare opportunity to see the original Civil Rights Act.
For more information read the Prologue article, “LBJ Champions the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” It explores how President Johnson gave the “Johnson treatment” to powerful members of Congress to get the landmark civil rights legislation passed.