During the Kennedy administration, the Republican minority in Congress introduced many bills to protect the constitutional rights of blacks, including a comprehensive new civil rights bill. In February 1963, to head off a return by most blacks to the party of Lincoln, John Kennedy abruptly decided to submit to Congress a new civil rights bill. Hastily drafted in a singleall-nighter,the Kennedy bill fell well short of what our party had introduced into Congress the month before. Over the next several months, Democratic racists in Congress geared up for a protracted filibuster against the civil-rights bill. The bill was before a committee in the House when Kennedy was assasinated in November 1963.
Invoking his slain predecessor, Lyndon Johnson made passage of the bill his top priority, and in his first speech to Congress he urged representatives and senators to do “more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.” Though he shared Johnson’s convictions on safeguarding the constitutional rights of blacks, if Richard Nixon had been in the White House then instead, Democrats in favor of segregation and those unwilling to see a Republican achieve the victory would have blocked his legislative initiative in Congress.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was an update of Republican Sen. Charles Sumner’s 1875 Civil Rights Act. In striking down that law in 1883, the Supreme Court had ruled that the 14th Amendment was not sufficient constitutional authorization, so the 1964 version had to be written in such a way as to rely instead on the interstate commerce clause for its constitutional underpinning.
Mindful of how Democratic opposition had forced the Republicans to weaken their 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, Johnson warned Democrats in Congress that this time it was all or nothing. To ensure support from Republicans, he had to promise them that he would not accept any weakening of the bill and also that he would publicly credit our party for its role in securing congressional approval. Johnson played no direct role in the legislative fight, so that it would not be perceived as a partisan struggle. There was no doubt that the House would pass the bill.
In the Senate, then-Minority Leader Everett Dirksen had little trouble rounding up the votes of most Republicans, and former presidential candidate Richard Nixon also lobbied hard for the bill. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Sen. Hubert Humphrey led the Democratic drive for passage, while the chief opponents were Democratic Sens. Sam Ervin, of later Watergate fame, Albert Gore Sr. and Robert Byrd. Mr. Byrd, a former Klansman whom Democrats still call “the conscience of the Senate,” filibustered against the civil rights bill for 14 straight hours before the final vote. The House passed the bill by 289-126, a vote in which 79 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats voted yes. The Senate vote was 73-27, with 21 Democrats and only six Republicans voting no. Johnson signed the new Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964.
Overall, there was little overt resistance to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The struggle was not yet over, however, as most Southern state governments remained under the control of segregationist Democrats. It was a Republican federal judge who desegregated many public facilities in the South. Appointed by President Eisenhower in 1955, Judge Frank Johnson had overturned Montgomery, Alabama’s infamous “blacks in the back of the bus” law in his very first decision. During the 1960s, Judge Johnson continued to advance civil rights, despite opposition from George Wallace, Lester Maddox and other Democratic governors.
Michael Zak is a policy analyst for the House Republican Policy Committee. This essay is adapted from “Back to Basics for the Republican Party.”
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