by Stacey Chandler, JFK Library Reference Archivist
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, was a long time in the making.
(Pictured: JFK’s televised address to Americans on civil rights, June 11 1963)
By spring 1963, JFK had dealt with civil rights abuses using tactics ranging from phone calls to executive orders – even asking Congress to act in February (they didn’t). But on June 11, when a public showdown with Governor George Wallace led JFK to take control of the Alabama National Guard and force the integration of the University of Alabama, JFK decided to talk directly to Americans about doing more for civil rights.
In a speech that night, JFK laid out a moral case for new civil rights laws, promising to bring a bill to Congress that would “move this problem from the streets to the courts.” On June 19 the administration delivered, in the form of H.R. 7152 (below).
(See more pages from HR 7152 here: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKPOF-053-004.aspx)
The original bill did seven things:
- enforced federal voting rights;
- desegregated “public accommodations” like hotels and diners;
- let the Attorney General help desegregate public schools;
- formed a national service to solve local problems;
- extended the Commission on Civil Rights;
- banned discrimination in federally-funded programs;
- and made the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission permanent.
Arguments about government overreach instantly hit the news and the White House mail room: did the federal government have the right to tell businesses what to do?
(A pamphlet warns “personal liberty will be chained by the over-riding power of the Federal government.”
See more: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/BMPP-028-003.aspx)
RFK went to Congress to argue that the 14th Amendment and commerce clause did allow federal intervention in private businesses (JFK was busy that day, declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner” to a cheering crowd in Germany). Unconvinced, Governor Wallace later called the rules a “socialistic scheme of government which will bring the total destruction of private property rights.”
(Pictured, an excerpt from RFK’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, June 26 1963. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHSFLCW-022-004.aspx)
Meanwhile, police set dogs and fire hoses on protestors, a bomb killed four little girls in a Birmingham church, and voters were turned away by impossible literacy tests. Civil rights supporters were worried the bill couldn’t fix all of these problems, and pushed for stronger laws.
[JFKWHCSF-0482-001-p0144. Telegram from K. Patrick Okura, urging “meaningful civil rights legislation.”]
JFK’s staff answered mail from around the country, many pushing for stronger civil rights laws. Their response? A tougher bill wouldn’t pass, and that couldn’t be risked.
[JFKWHCSF-0482-001-p0116. An excerpt of Lee White’s response to a civil rights advocate pushing for tough laws.]
Shepherded by Republican William McCullough and Democrat Emmanuel Celler, an edited H.R. 7152 finally made it through the House Judiciary Committee on October 29, 1963 – the first hurdle on a long track. Just three weeks later, JFK was assassinated in Dallas, the last lines of his final speech forever unspoken:
[Speech cards from the last speech written for JFK. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKPOF-048-023.aspx ]
LBJ, working to push the bill through the House and Senate, said a few days later: “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
[ST-C277-1-63.- President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson Meet with Organizers of “March on Washington,” August 28 1963.]
After more editing, arguing, and political gaming worthy of its own TV series (including an infamous filibuster and a surprise addition on women’s rights), the final version of H.R. 7152 was signed into law by LBJ on July 2, 1964, marking what the Senate Historical Office calls “one of the most significant legislative achievements in American history.”
A big thanks to JFK Library archivist Stacey Chandler for this guest blog. Follow us for more from Stacey!