Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964


If you think it's difficult for Congress to pass legislation these days, imagine what it took to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

As we reflect on the Act and what it took to get it passed, we should first imagine the southern lobby against it. If you think President Obama had it hard with the Tea Party opposition to his healthcare reform, imagine the opposition President John F. Kennedy and in turn President Lyndon Johnson faced from southerners.

Now imagine the blood, sweat, and tears from civil rights leaders like Dr. King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Congressman John Lewis, Julian Bond, Vivian Malone, Ella Baker, and the every-day foot soldiers of the movement that it took to make this sweeping legislation a reality. We can't commemorate the anniversary without considering the impact of important events like the NAACP's challenge to "separate but equal" schools in 1954, the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. Those events and others like them shaped the Civil Rights Movement and in turn shaped this legislation.

On February 28, 1963, President John F. Kennedy issued a special message on civil rights from the White House which was "intended to examine how far we have come in achieving first-class citizenship for all citizens regardless of color, how far we have yet to go, and what further tasks remain to be carried out." The President believed the task at hand, 100 hundred years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, was to pass much needed civil rights legislation.

It has been widely reported, however, that President Kennedy was torn between his personal beliefs and his political ambitions. While he seemed to believe that African Americans deserved equality, he had directly interceded only in a few instances of highly publicized violence and defiance. So, much of the Civil Rights Movement had proceeded without his visible support. Why? The astute Massachusetts senator turned President knew in the early years of his first term that he needed southern support in the Congress for his overall domestic and foreign agenda. And, in the latter part of his first term, Kennedy worried about his bid for re-election in 1964.

But, with all of the highly publicized acts of violence in the South, Kennedy knew that the time was ripe for civil rights legislation. And so, on June 19, 1963, just one week after the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Kennedy sent a special message on civil rights to the Congress along with a proposed Civil Rights Act of 1963 addressing voting rights, public accommodations, desegregation of public schools, continuation of the Civil Rights Commission, nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs, and establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Following President Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) said "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill…" He intensified efforts at passage and ultimately signed the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, legislation that was even stronger than that originally proposed by President Kennedy.

Shirley A. Jones, Esq. is president of the Region XI Council of Blacks in Government.

Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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