FIFTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, on July 2, 1964, the United States moved a step closer to walking the walk when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a nationally televised ceremony.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he was a slave owner in a rebellious new nation where equality was but a fond wish, a radical idea on a planet where democracy barely existed.
Most African–Americans weren’t even free, let alone equal. Women didn’t even merit notice in Jefferson’s famous sentence.
It might have taken one of the nation’s great tragedies to make the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the death of legal segregation, come to pass.
President John F. Kennedy pushed for it right up until his assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Opposition in Congress, especially from Southern segregationists, quashed it.
Then, in the wake of JFK’s death, President Johnson made getting the act passed his mission. And unlike so many of his modern-day peers, Johnson could work with people with whom he did not always agree.
He lobbied, cajoled and made deals. He knew that getting the Civil Rights Act passed would cost him and the Democratic Party. He told an aide, “I know the risks are great and we might lose the South, but those sorts of states may be lost anyway.”
Howard. W. Smith, a longtime congressman from Northern Virginia, was one of the main roadblocks to getting the bill passed in the House of Representatives. As chairman of the House Rules Committee, he kept it from coming to a vote until, in the face of public opinion, he relented and the bill cleared the House.
In the Senate, more obstruction awaited. After 75 days of filibustering, mostly by Southern senators, including a 14-hour, 13-minute speech by West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, a compromise bill was finally voted on. It passed 73–27, but the only Southern Democrats who voted in favor of it were Texas compatriots of Johnson.
There was an earlier Civil Rights Act, in 1875. That one sank as Jim Crow laws and national indifference gutted Reconstruction. It took 89 years to get a second act passed.
What did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 do? It basically expanded the 19th-century 14th and 15th Amendments. It banned discrimination at all places of public accommodation based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
It opened the door for a host of laws that would, at least on paper, ensure fair treatment for everyone. Legislation made it illegal to discriminate in housing, education or employment. The act would be expanded to specifically include the disabled, the elderly and women. Because money talks, the most effective part of the act might be the part that prohibits use of federal funds for programs that discriminate.
Anyone wanting to find examples of an imperfect America in 2019 won’t have to search hard. However, anyone wishing to feel a little better about how far we’ve come might take a look at the country now, and as it was before July 2, 1964.