July 2, 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 goes into effect.

Forty-nine years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was designed to

enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes. 

This landmark piece of civil rights legislation had been a goal of Johnson’s predecessor John F. Kennedy, who, months before his assassination in November 1963, addressed the nation in order to underscore the nation’s need for a comprehensive civil rights bill and to urge the public to support a bill that would “[give] all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public — hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.” Until 1963, Kennedy had shown much reservedness in pursuing his civil rights agenda, knowing it would antagonize southern Democrats, whose support was vital to his re-election, but the events of 1963 (the Birmingham campaign, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the integration of the University of Alabama, and others) pushed the government to action. Five days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, a bold and experienced promoter of legislation, addressed Congress itself and urged them to pass the bill as quickly as possible, saying “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”. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 289-126, garnering most of its support from northern states and emerging mostly intact and uncompromised.

The situation in the Senate was more complicated. Claiming that the bill was unconstitutional and comparing it to Reconstruction-era policies, Senator Strom Thurmond actually switched to the Republican party, and the longtime Democratic-voting states of the South voted Republican in the 1964 election. The bill finally passed over intense Southern opposition after a seventy-five-day-long filibuster, which was ended by the second cloture invoked by the Senate in nearly forty years. The final vote was 73-27, and President Johnson signed the bill into law two weeks later. The actual implementation of its measures in following years was an uncertain process.

President Johnson’s remarks upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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    Claiming that the bill was unconstitutional (not an uncommon accusation) and comparing it to Reconstruction-era...
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