Civics 101: The Civil Rights Act is turning 55

J. H. Osborne • Updated Jun 17, 2019 at 1:12 PM

This month marks the 55th anniversary of the final push for and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.

The  act prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, made employment discrimination illegal, and enforced the constitutional right to vote.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, in a nationally televised ceremony in the East Room of the White House before congressional leaders and civil rights leaders instrumental in the bill’s passage. Johnson did so just a few hours after the bill’s approval by the House of Representatives.

What did it do and how did it happen?

• The Civil Rights Act of 1964 hastened the end of legal Jim Crow. It secured African Americans equal access to restaurants, transportation, and other public facilities. It enabled blacks, women, and other minorities to break down barriers in the workplace. It also made access to equal education a reality for the many Southern and Northern African Americans who began attending integrated schools in the wake of the act’s enforcement.

• Johnson had made the passage of slain President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill his top priority during the first year of his administration. He enlisted the help of the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and key members of Congress such as Sens. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Everett Dirksen (R-IL) and Reps. Emanuel Celler (D-NY), and William McCulloch (R-OH), to secure the bill’s passage. He also asked for support from friend and mentor Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr. (D-GA), the leader of the Southern Democrats in the Senate, who opposed the bill to the very end. Throughout the winter and spring of 1964, Johnson applied his formidable legislative acumen and skills to push the bill through Congress. Dirksen, the Senate minority leader, played a pivotal role in the passage of the act.

• On May 26, Dirksen introduced the bipartisan Dirksen-Mansfield-Kuchel-Humphrey compromise bill as a substitute for the original version. Previously an opponent of civil rights legislation, Dirksen urged Republicans to support the bill as “an idea whose time has come.” On June 10, after a prolonged filibuster, the Senate invoked cloture, thereby cutting off debate.

• On June 19, exactly one year after President Kennedy’s proposal, the compromise bill passed the Senate by a vote of 73 to 27. House approval followed, and on July 2 President Johnson signed the bill into law.

• The law’s 11 sections prohibited discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, public facilities, and agencies receiving federal funds, and strengthened prohibitions on school segregation and discrimination in voter registration.

Civil rights and the ’64 election

• In the 1964 presidential election, President Johnson ran against Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ). Russell warned Johnson that his strong support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “will not only cost you the South, it will cost you the election.” Johnson went on to win the presidency, in a landslide victory, by more than 15 million votes. He captured 94 percent of the black vote. Goldwater won his native state of Arizona and five states in the Deep South.

Sources: United States Library of Congress; The National Archives