1964 Civil Rights Act

In the 1960 presidential election campaign John F. Kennedy argued for a new Civil Rights Act. After the election it was discovered that over 70 per cent of the African American vote went to Kennedy. However, during the first two years of his presidency, Kennedy failed to put forward his promised legislation.

The Civil Rights bill was brought before Congress in 1963 and in a speech on television on 11th June, Kennedy pointed out that: "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."

Kennedy's Civil Rights bill was still being debated by Congress when he was assassinated in November, 1963. The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had a poor record on civil rights issues, took up the cause. His main opponent was his long-time friend and mentor, Richard B. Russell, who told the Senate: "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states." Russell organized 18 Southern Democratic senators in filibustering this bill.

However, on the 15th June, 1964, Richard B. Russell privately told Mike Mansfield and Hubert Humphrey, the two leading supporters of the Civil Rights Act, that he would bring an end to the filibuster that was blocking the vote on the bill. This resulted in a vote being taken and it was passed by 73 votes to 27.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discriminated based on colour, race or national origin.

The Civil Rights Act also attempted to deal with the problem of African Americans being denied the vote in the Deep South. The legislation stated that uniform standards must prevail for establishing the right to vote. Schooling to sixth grade constituted legal proof of literacy and the attorney general was given power to initiate legal action in any area where he found a pattern of resistance to the law.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) John F. Kennedy, speech on television (11th June, 1963)

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.

We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it. And we cherish our freedom here at home. But are we to say to the world - and much more importantly to each other - that this is the land of the free, except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes; that we no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes.

(2) Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976)

In the spring of 1964, only four months after he became president, Lyndon Johnson had spoken at the campus of the University of Michigan, and there he sketched the outline for a program intended to go beyond the "Kennedy legacy". The climate that made it possible for a president to adopt such large ambitions and to succeed in enacting so many of his proposals was the product of converging circumstances. The shock of Kennedy's death, the civil rights movement, an emerging awareness of the extent and existence of poverty, a reduction of threatening tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, all helped Americans to focus public attention and perceptions on the problems of their own country.

(3) Exchange between Allen Ellender of Louisiana and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (11th March, 1964)

Allen Ellender: The Senator from Minnesota (Hubert Humphrey) has not lived in the South. The situation does not exist in the state of Minnesota that has existed in the South. In some counties in the state of Mississippi, the ratio of Negroes to white is 3 to 1.

Hubert Humphrey: I appreciate that...

Allen Ellender: I am frank to say that in many instances the reason why the voting rights were not encouraged is that the white people in those counties are in the minority are afraid they would be outvoted. Let us be frank about it.

Hubert Humphrey: It is a fact, is it not, that the large numbers of colored people who are citizens of the United States, many of whom are called upon to perform all the duties of citizenship, in peace and war, are denied the right to register and thereby denied the right to vote.

Allen Ellender: That has been done in many places.

(4) Richard B. Russell, speech in the Senate on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act (18th June, 1964)

I am proud to have been a member of that small group of determined senators that since the 9th of March has given ... the last iota of physical strength in the effort to hold back the overwhelming combination of forces supporting this bill until its manifold evils could be laid bare before the people of the country.

The depth of our conviction is evidenced by the intensity of our opposition. There is little room for honorable men to compromise where the inalienable rights of future generations are at stake. . . .

Mr. President, the people of the South are citizens of this Republic. They are entitled to some consideration. It seems to me that fair men should recognize that the people of the South, too, have some rights which should be respected. And though, Mr. President, we have failed in this fight to protect them from a burgeoning bureaucracy that is already planning and organizing invasion after invasion of the South... our failure cannot be ascribed to lack of effort. Our ranks were too thin, our resources too scanty, but we did our best. I say to my comrades in arms in this long fight that there will never come a time when it will be necessary for any one of us to apologize for his conduct or his courage.

(5) Lyndon Baines Johnson, interviewed in 1968.

The trick was to crack the wall of separation enough to give the Congress a feeling of participation in creating my bills while exposing my plans at the same time to advance congressional opposition before they even saw the light of day. My experience in the National Youth Administration (NYA) taught me that when people have a hand in shaping projects, the projects are more likely to be successful than the ones simply handed down from the top. As Majority Leader in the Senate I learned that the best guarantee to legislature success was a process by which the wishes and views of the members are obtained ahead of time and whenever possible, incorporated into the early drafts of the bill.