Civil Rights Act Of 1964 And 1965 – In a speech to a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson called for swift action on a civil rights bill. (LBJ Library)
Just five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson went to Congress and addressed a nation still reeling from the Dallas events that shocked the world.
Civil Rights Act Of 1964 And 1965
Johnson made it clear that he would pursue the President’s slain legislative agenda—specifically one particular bill that Kennedy championed but faced strong and fierce opposition from powerful southern Democrats.
Voting Rights Act
“No speech or eulogy can honor the memory of President Kennedy more than the first possible passage of the civil rights bill he championed,” Johnson told lawmakers.
Then he put his fellow Southern Democrats on notice that they were in a fight, saying: “We’ve been talking in this country about equal rights for a long time. We’ve been talking for a hundred years or more. Now is the time to write the next chapter, and write it in the law books.”
Forty years ago, Johnson set out to do what he did in 1957 and 1960 as Senate majority leader—steer a civil rights bill through a Congress heavily controlled by southern Democrats who opposed it. But he is no longer a majority leader and he can no longer push the buttons of skeptical members in the bathroom or trade with them to get what he wants or promise rewards or punishments.
This is the story of how Lyndon Johnson set the stage for this legislation years ago and how he choreographed the passage of this historic measure in 1964—a year when the civil rights movement gained momentum and when racial tension played a role in the presidency. campaign.
Milestones Of The Civil Rights Movement
The story has been told often, but this account has been supplemented with details discovered in recent years with the opening of Johnson’s White House telephone recordings and excerpts from the oral history collection at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.
It begins in 1957, with Johnson as Senate majority leader, engineering the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a task generally considered impossible until he does it.
“For Lyndon Johnson to see this bill passed, almost vote for vote,” said Pultizer Prize-winning LBJ biographer Robert Caro, “was a testament not only to legislative power but legislative genius.”
A key to Johnson’s success is that he was able to connect two completely unrelated issues: civil rights and the construction of a dam in Hells Canyon in the Sawtooth Mountains in the far northwest of America. Western senators are eager for the dam, which will produce large amounts of electricity. For years public power advocates and private power interests have battled to determine whether the government should build dams or private companies.
How Women Got In On The Civil Rights Act
Those who favor public power are generally liberals from the Northwest states; they were also liberal on civil rights, but they didn’t have large numbers of African American voters in their states to answer to, so a vote against civil rights wouldn’t hurt them too much. LBJ made a deal that traded some of their votes to support the southern conservative position that favored a weak civil rights law. In return, southerners would vote for public power in Hells Canyon.
A major problem with the 1957 bill, as originally drafted, was its provision that certain violations could be tried in court without the benefit of a jury. But as Senator Hubert H. Humphrey recalled, the issue of whether or not the trials were included in the 1957 bill was difficult even for many liberals. Humphrey said that his populist background emphasized the importance of jury trials, but he realized that southern juries would never convict any white person accused of violating civil rights laws.
However, liberals took the hard line, that there should be no jury trial, and that violations of the law should be subject to criminal contempt proceedings, not civil contempt. Humphrey also recalled that LBJ convinced Senator John F. Kennedy to vote for jury trial, and that this did not seem to hurt Kennedy’s liberal credentials. Jury trials are included in the last act.
As a result, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was virtually toothless legislation—which is one of the reasons it was able to win Senate approval. However, it has meaning. George Reedy, an aide to LBJ for many years, anticipated later authors in his analysis of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, when he wrote in 1983:
The Civil Rights Act Of 1964 And The Voting Rights Act Of 1965 (article)
This is the point that has perhaps caused the most confusion among students of the political process. Their mistake was to evaluate the 1957 bill only on its merits. The most important fact is that it broke down barriers in civil rights legislation and made possible the broader actions that later followed. … [T]he Senate is a continuing body and its acts must be analyzed not only in terms of what they do but how they pave the way for doing other things. [Emphasis in the original.]
In his oral history, Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who authored the 1957 bill, may have overstated his case when he said that the completion of the Civil Rights Act “was a revolutionary bill … worth. the compromise … I think liberals are very happy that we won this victory.”
Johnson also engineered the Senate’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which again was largely toothless. Both acts focused primarily on voting rights, and provided no realistic means of enforcement. But they put the civil rights issue on the legislative agenda and predict future fights for broader, tougher laws.
The Kennedy administration took office in 1961 as national sentiment in favor of stronger civil rights legislation, and enforcement mechanisms, was growing.
Civil Rights Act Of 1964: In Pursuit Of Equality
President Kennedy, however, was loathe to ask Congress for strong legislation on the issue. Although he personally sympathized with the plight of African Americans, his political instincts warned against action.
On May 2, 1963, a horrified nation watched on television as Birmingham, Alabama’s Public Safety Commissioner, T. Eugene “Bull” Connor, and his police and firemen descended on hundreds of African American marchers, including students, and attack dogs, nightsticks, and fire hoses.
In response to the resulting national uproar, on June 11 Kennedy went on national television to announce that he was sending a civil rights bill to Congress. Hours later, Medgar Evers, director of the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was gunned down in his driveway.
Kennedy now began a very public lobbying campaign, pressuring several private organizations to desegregate and show support for his bill. This was bound to provoke powerful southern enemies in the Democratic-controlled Congress, and this had serious implications: Southern Democrats controlled twelve of eighteen committees in the Senate and twelve of twenty-one in the House. This means jeopardizing the President’s entire legislative agenda.
Selma And Civil Rights
Part of that agenda is the President’s proposed tax cuts, which he doesn’t like. He believed that he would stimulate the economy and thus have a beneficial influence on the election in 1964. But he needed time to do his work, so he needed to be passed as soon as possible. It will be difficult. Conservatives in Congress did not like the bill because it would create deficits.
If Kennedy insists on a civil rights bill, he could tie Congress into a fight that could prevent the tax bill from reaching the House floor.
Kennedy decided to take the chance, but he had his doubts. He asked Robert, his brother, “Do you think we did the right thing when we sent the law? They had no choice, the attorney general replied, the problem had to be dealt with-and immediately.
On June 26, the Judiciary Subcommittee House no. 5 hearings on the civil rights bill. The subcommittee is dominated by liberals and is chaired by Celler, who is also the president of the full committee, which is more balanced in terms of membership. It was hoped that the bill would not run into much trouble in the subcommittee, and in August, Celler announced that they would begin closed sessions to “tweak” the bill into final form.
The Politics Of Passing 1964’s Civil Rights Act
But President Kennedy secretly asked Celler to hold up the civil rights bill until the tax bill passed the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Representative Wilbur Mills of Arkansas. If the civil rights bill came out first, Kennedy feared that Mills would retaliate by killing the tax bill—and Mills, a conservative fiscal, did not like tax cuts in principle in any case. Even if Mills doesn’t veto the bill, conservatives on the Senate Finance Committee are perfectly capable of doing so.
Johnson meets with civil rights leaders in the Oval Office in January 1964. From left, Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP; James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality; Martin Luther King, Jr., president
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