- Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 February 2014 12:17
- Published on Wednesday, 12 February 2014 12:17
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Even as its prospects for passage improved for many, it still seemed like a far off dream. A civil rights bill, nothing more than a strong and clear assertion of the principles already established in the Constitution had come before the Congress a half dozen times. But each time, the bills, some of which passed the House, all failed in the Senate. Southern Senators used every tactic they could to keep the bills from becoming law.
The argument, though at its heart it was always about racism, was that a national civil rights bill violated state’s rights. It may seem a weak argument today, but fifty years ago, it was a mantra that helped keep millions of Americans from having the basic civil rights we now consider a given.
Fifty years ago, beginning with passage of the bill in the House of Representatives on Feb. 10, the legislation once again began to move. But was it going to crash on the rocks on the senate as it had so many times before? It was an open question. Remarkably, an amazing combination of social and political forces had come together in the wake of John Kennedy’s assassination that was going to change America forever. This time things were going to be different.
In the south, primarily the states of the old confederacy, African Americans couldn’t eat in the same restaurants as white people, couldn’t use the same swimming pool, couldn’t shop at department stores, couldn’t attend universities their taxes paid to support, were denied jobs in both the public and private sector based on their color, couldn’t live where they wanted, and for the most part, couldn’t vote. As for attending the same public schools, and having access to a quality education, in the south, in spite of the Brown decision ten years before, segregation had hardly budged. And for many, particularly elected officials in the south, this was just fine.
It was the status quo, they were often elected by white voters based on their ability to maintain this system, and they weren’t about to acquiesce. Virginia’s Harry Byrd Sr. and Willis Robertson were adamant opponents of Civil Rights legislation. As was the congressman representing of the Fredericksburg area, Howard Smith. Each man, and particularly Mr. Smith, the Chair of the House Rules Committee, did his best to stop the Civil Rights Bill.
But the opponents met their match in a unique combination of social forces, politics, and personalities. Lyndon Johnson, at one time an opponent of civil rights legislation, on the death of President Kennedy was now President. To the surprise of many he had radically changed his view. Maybe they had always been his views, and in the end it probably doesn’t matter, but with a passion and genius, he worked with civil rights leaders, most notably, Martin Luther King, Republicans, especially the legendary Everett Dirksen, step by step, with measured precision, to do what no one else had done before.
He was able to coerce, persuade, and cajole enough members of the House to threaten a discharge petition to get the bill out of Congressman Smith’s Rules Committee. And then, in a masterful move, worked with his protégé from his days as Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, to get the bill reported directly to the Senate floor. After that, there were 83 days of filibuster, endless, mind numbing, debate whose only purpose was to delay a vote, the bill’s floor manager, Hubert Humphrey, working with the President, found enough votes to force cloture. The Senate passed the bill by an overwhelming margin. There was some negotiation to follow, but the die was cast, and on the same day that 189 years before that the founding fathers had passed the resolution declaring American Independence, the Civil Rights Act became law.
The world did not change magically overnight. There were hard days ahead. The bill required additional strengthening when it came to employment and housing. And there was a separate Voting Rights the next year. And of course, it’s one thing to have a law to back you up, but it’s another to actually go out and make it work. The strides forward in the half century since then have been remarkable. From General Colin Powell to President Obama. But, the world and people change only so fast.
We’ve come a long ways, but we have a ways to go. Several years later Martin Luther King, borrowing from Moses, talked about the promised land of racial equality. Prophetically, he said he doubted he would be around to see it. We haven’t gotten there yet, but fifty years ago, in one of the most remarkable feats in American legislative history we were on our way.
—Reach David Kerr at