The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Reference: United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the nation’s benchmark civil rights legislation, and it continues to resonate in America.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  Passage of the Act ended the application of Jim Crow laws, which had been upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Court held that racial segregation purported to be “separate but equal” was constitutional.  The Civil Rights Act was eventually expanded by Congress to strengthen enforcement of these fundamental civil rights.

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

The House Judiciary Committee held a series of hearings on the proposed legislation during the summer of 1963.  The proposed bill was amended during the committee process to broaden the scope of protections.  The changes strengthened President Kennedy’s original proposal in response to the tumultuous summer of 1963,which saw several incidents of racially motivated violence across the South.  The House Judiciary Committee approved the legislation on October 26, 1963, and formally reported it to the full House on November 20, 1963, just two days before President Kennedy was assassinated.  On November 27, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson asserted his commitment to President Kennedy’s legislative agenda, particularly civil rights legislation.  The House of Representatives passed a final version of the Civil Rights Act on February 10, 1964.

The bill came before the Senate in February 1964.  Because the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to act on proposed civil rights legislation just seven years earlier, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield filed a procedural motion to prevent the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from being referred to the Committee.  Despite opposition to the motion from Senators opposed to the Civil Rights Act, Mansfield successfully prevented the bill from being referred to the Committee.  The Senate began debate on the proposal on March 30, 1964.  Senator Edward Kennedy, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, dedicated his first speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate to the consideration of the Civil Rights Act.  Senator Kennedy would go on to become the longest serving member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

After a 54-day filibuster of the legislation, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced a compromise bill.  The legislation enjoyed enough Senate support to end the stalemate, and was ultimately passed on June 19, 1964, by a vote of 73 to 27.  On July 2, 1964, the House voted to adopt the Senate-passed legislation, rather than insisting on a conference of the bill.  President Johnson signed the bill into law that very afternoon.  The Civil Rights Act paved the way for future anti-discrimination legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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