Nicolaus Mills: Who Passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964?





[Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America and most recently, Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America s Coming of Age as a Superpower.]

LIKE SO many of my generation who did voter registration work in the South during the 1960s, I have been saddened by the debate that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sparked over whether Martin Luther King or President Lyndon Johnson was responsible for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination in hiring and public accommodations. Instead of providing voters with a thoughtful view of the recent past, Clinton and Obama combined to offer a crude, “great man” theory of history in which King's vision and Johnson's pragmatism were portrayed as antithetical forces.

The debate has quieted down. But it should not be allowed to fade from the headlines without a reminder of the lesson this controversy threatened to obscure—blacks and whites across America relied on one another to make the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a reality.

The act had its legislative origins in a June 11, 1963 speech that President John Kennedy delivered on national television after Justice Department officials, aided by federal marshals, forced Alabama Governor George Wallace to stand aside while two black students were admitted to the previously segregated University of Alabama. “If an American, because his skin is dark . . . cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” Kennedy asked the country.

But Kennedy's speech, which was followed hours later by the murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, did not guarantee a speedy passage of civil rights legislation. A coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans stood in the way and the best that Kennedy could do before his November 22 assassination was to get his civil rights bill voted out of committee.

It fell to President Lyndon Johnson to get Kennedy's civil rights legislation enacted. Soon after taking office, Johnson made his intentions clear. “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights,” he told a joint session of Congress on November 27. “It is time now to write the next chapter and to write it in books of law.” At this same time, Martin Luther King was playing a crucial role in shaping public opinion. His April 16 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his August 28 speech “I Have a Dream” galvanized millions of Americans who in the past had remained passive when support for civil rights was needed.

Still, it was not until 1964 that Kennedy's civil rights bill got through Congress. On February 10, the House passed the bill by a vote of 290 to 130 and on June 19, in the wake of a record-breaking 75-day filibuster, which took up 534 hours, the Senate passed its version of the civil rights bill by a 73 to 27 margin. Now Lyndon Johnson began pressuring Congress to reach agreement on a bill that he could sign by July 4.

At this moment, Johnson benefited not only from the civil rights coalition led by Martin Luther King but from the grassroots work of Bob Moses, then a young organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had been active in Mississippi since 1961. ...


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