On this day in 1964, a landmark bill was passed after an 83-day filibuster in the US Senate. An iconic moment of 20th-century social history – not just in America but worldwide – this was culmination of the Civil Rights movement – as all discrimination based on sex race or national origin was banned, as well as any form of racial segregation.
Historians agree that the Act was directly influenced by the Birmingham Campaign the year before. Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the flagship cities of the policy of racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodation. It lay in the American South, where in centuries gone by most of the country’s black population had worked as slaves, and where their white compatriots had gone to war over the issue a century before. Though black people were theoretically emancipated after the North’s victory in the Civil War, their lot did not improve much in the century that followed. By the early 1960s riots, discontent and violent police reprisals had given rise to a minor movement asking for equal rights in Birmingham, founded by local black reverend Fred Shuttleworth – and in 1963 he invited the star of the Civil Rights movement – Martin Luther King Jr – to bring his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the city, claiming that “if you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation.”
Once the SCLC were in town, Shuttleworth started the campaign in April with a boycott of industries which refused to employ black workers. When local leaders resisted and condemned the boycott, King and the Reverend changed their tactics and organised peaceful marches and sit-ins, knowing that the inevitable mass-arrests of non-violent protesters would gain international recognition for their cause. It was slow going at first, before the campaign decided to seek support amongst Birmingham’s large student population, who suffered from segregation more than most. This policy was a huge success, and images of teenagers being brutally hosed by police or having attack dogs set on them brought widespread international condemnation. With recognition came support, and peaceful demonstrations broke out across the south as Birmingham’s segregation laws began to weaken under the strain.
President Kennedy was aware of these events and as the early 1960s progressed, he had been under increasing pressure to act. As brutal police treatment of protesters became more publicized, and Luther King’s peaceful style of protest began to give way to more violent black activists like Malcolm X, he knew that it was time to act, despite the inevitable backlash from the white South. On June 11th 1963 he delivered a speech in the Oval Office which became known as the Civil Rights Address, which presented the issue as a moral as well as legislative one, and announced that the President would be submitting new legislation to Congress that would legally destroy discrimination.
Kennedy was in the midst of trying to get the bill through Congress when he was sensationally assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His Vice-President, Lyndon Johnson, took over. Despite his highly controversial and inaccurate portrayal as an obstructive racist in the recent film Selma, Johnson was a keen supporter of the Civil Rights Act and a wily and experienced master of legislative politics, who did as much as any man in government to get the law changed. In his first speech to Congress in November he claimed that “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.”
With public opinion in the more liberal north firmly behind the bill, Congress passed it in early 1964 despite the efforts of numerous dissenters, and reached the Senate floor. Here it ran out of momentum, as a group of 18 mostly Southern Democrat Senators filibustered or obstructed the vote, by extending the debating time in a move known as “talking a bill to death.” Watching these events unfold on the 26th March were Luther King and Malcolm X – the only time the two titans of the Civil Rights movement ever met. After months of talking and waiting under the scrutiny of the world (and the Soviet Union – which was greatly enjoying the easy propaganda victories which America’s racial problems provided) a new slightly weaker version of the bill was proposed, which finally gained enough Republican swing votes to end the Filibuster.
With the endless talking over, it came to a vote, where the Act was passed by a crushing 73 votes to 27. Luther King and Johnson had won, and now racial integration would be forced by the power of the law. Aside from the obvious social changes the bill brought, which continue to be felt to this day, it also had profound political effects, as the South swung into becoming a stronghold of the Republican party for the first time in history. It has remained so ever since. Though Johnson was warned that support for the Act might cost him the 1964 election, he won it by a crushing landslide. The 20th June did not change everything for minorities in America overnight, and it remains a contentious topic in contemporary politics, but it was still a watershed moment, from where there could be no return to the institutionalized racism that had plagued the earth’s most powerful country for so many years.