Civil Rights Act: A decadelong fight against discrimination ends because 'it is time'

June 30, 2014 Updated: July 1, 2014 at 10:12 am
photo - State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is being beaten by state troopers. (AP Photo)
State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is being beaten by state troopers. (AP Photo) 

Patricia Seymour was 5 when her grandmother took her to a dime store in Colorado Springs on a July day in 1964.

"We sat in a booth and had sodas. I knew it was a special occasion because we had never done that before, but I didn't quite understand," said Seymour, a descendant of one of Colorado Springs' pioneering black families. "When I was older, she told me we did it because we could. That we were finally allowed to sit there because the Civil Rights Act had just been passed."

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It was the culmination of a 10-year battle that included the Montgomery bus boycott, restaurant sit-ins, the Selma to Montgomery march and the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963.

It was a time marked by violence, including the murder of black civil rights activist Medgar Evers in June 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in June 1964.

After passage of the Civil Rights Act, black people everywhere, like Seymour's grandmother, tried out their new status by going into public places where they had been denied entrance in the past.

Those actions were called "testing," making sure establishments were complying with the new law, said Robert Loevy, professor emeritus at Colorado College.

Loevy, 28 at the time, was in Washington, D.C., on a fellowship for young professors in 1963 and 1964. He witnessed much of the pivotal history of the time and worked with key senators on passage of the act.

The bill was making its way through Congress and Loevy had just left a briefing in the Agriculture Department on Nov. 22, 1963, when he heard the news that President Kennedy, who had introduced the civil rights bill in June, had been shot. They listened to a Secret Serviceman's radio as the event unfolded.

"We heard everything the Secret Service was saying starting with the ambulance arriving at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. There was silence, and then a voice said he was pronounced dead and that all units proceed to the protection of Johnson."

Four days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson walked past Loevy and other aides on his way to deliver the famous speech to Congress where he promised to pass the Civil Rights Act.

Johnson told Congress that day: "We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter and to write it in the books of law."

Robert Caro, a Johnson biographer, wrote that on that morning Johnson had been told not to waste his time on civil rights and had replied, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" Over the ensuing months, he maneuvered and cut deals to get it done.

Meanwhile, Loevy in January 1964 had been appointed an assistant to California Sen. Thomas Kuchel, the Republican minority floor leader who is credited along with Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., and Johnson with pushing through the Civil Rights Act.

The House had passed the bill on a 290-130 vote.

But in the Senate, there were 18 southern Democrats from 11 states of the old Confederacy who waged a 54-day filibuster to block passage of the act. Johnson, a Democrat, and the pro-civil rights members in the Senate needed Republican votes to end the filibuster. Part of that effort was to modify the bill to be more palatable to those on the fence by emphasizing voluntary compliance of the act before the feds would get involved.

"It was my job to help Kuchel help Dirksen to round up the Republican votes," Loevy said.

Loevy was outside on the lawn June 10 during the vote to end the filibuster.

"I was watching Roger Mudd of CBS, getting the phone calls from inside and putting the votes on a tote board."

Dirksen, known for his great oratory style, gave one of his most famous speeches, saying, "We dare not temporize with the issue which is before us. It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. Its time has come."

The debate was ended by the votes of 71 senators, including 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans.

On June 17, 1964, the Senate voted to adopt the compromise bill and on June 19 gave it final approval on a 73-27 vote, according to the Dirksen Congressional Center.

Loevy was in the Senate chambers for the vote. "You could feel the excitement. All 100 senators were there."

In one of the most touching moments, Loevy said, Sen. Clair Engle of California, who was terminally ill and could not talk, was wheeled in, half sitting up. He gave his aye vote by pointing to his eye.

Loevy said, "It was one of the greatest moments of my life to be on the floor of the Senate the moment the act was passed."

The compromise bill went back to the House, where it was approved 289-126 on July 2 and sent immediately to Johnson for his signature.

"My feeling is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Act of '65 and Housing Act of 1968 became the Bill of Rights for minorities," Loevy said.

"African-Americans had led the civil rights battle for everyone. They did the dirty work. People lost lives and went to jail. It was a major sacrifice that all minorities benefited from."

The teeth of the act, Loevy said, was that it cut off U.S. government funds to programs that discriminated. It pushed state and local governments to integrate their facilities.

It worked instantly because there were two quick court cases, Loevy pointed out. The Supreme Court ruled that the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution gave it the legal power to exercise authority over the states in the matter. One case involved a motel on an interstate highway and a trickier one, a barbecue restaurant away from the highway that was discriminating against blacks. The court ruled they were involved in interstate commerce because their food and supplies were transported via interstate commerce.

"Now we have 50 years of case law, where all forms of discrimination have been tested and upheld. That shows how well the law was drawn up."

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