On June 9, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, introduced civil rights legislation to Congress. Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. strongly advocated for its passage–but it was a challenging battle. In a political landscape different from modern day, the act while the act was ultimately bipartisan, key Democrats were against it. Southern Democrats and Southern Republicans were opposed, with a majority of the other Republicans voting for the act.
One major hurdle was the assassination of Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, leaving his vice president, Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, who was installed as the new president to pick up the push for the passage of the legislation.
Following Kennedy’s death, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, urging Congress to honor Kennedy’s memory by passing a civil rights bill. In his address, Johnson stated, “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter and to write it in the books of law.”
It was finally enacted on July 2, 1964. The landmark civil rights and labor law outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, and employment discrimination. The act “remains one of the most significant legislative achievements in American history,” according to the United States Senate Archives.
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The legislation was opposed by filibusters in the Senate. The United States House of Representatives passed the bill on Feb. 10, 1964, and after a 72-day filibuster, it finally passed the United States Senate on June 19, 1964. The final vote was 290–130 in the House of Representatives and 73–27 in the Senate. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bill HR 7152) was signed into law by President Johnson at the White House on July 2, 1964.
Southern Democrats opposed the legislation, and it took revisions and dealmaking to get the bill pushed through.
On June 10, a coalition of 27 Republicans and 44 Democrats ended the filibuster when the Senate voted 71 to 29 for cloture. A cloture is a procedure for ending a debate and taking a vote.
With six wavering senators giving a four-vote margin of victory, the final tally stood at 71 to 29—27 Republicans and 44 Democrats joined together to support cloture. They were opposed by nay votes from six Republicans and 21 Democrats.
On June 19, the Senate passed the legislation. The House followed on July 2.
When President Johnson signed the bill into law that same day in a nationally televised broadcast, he was joined by King.
Johnson and King had a complex relationship. The two talked on a regular basis about civil rights issues, and Johnson invited King to the White House on numerous occasions, according to the U.S. National Archives. When Johnson ran for re-election in 1964, King had campaigned actively for his campaign. The relationship soured when King spoke out against the ongoing Vietnam War and the Johnson administration’s policies in Vietnam. In late 1966 King’s last phone call to Johnson was to discuss Vietnam. Later, Johnson tried to meet with King twice, but King canceled both engagements, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
On April 4 1967, King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam,” that King delivered at New York’s Riverside Church. In his speech, King said that he had to “break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart” against the war in Vietnam and King called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
The push for civil rights legislation actually goes back further than Kennedy.
Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his attorney general, Herb Brownell, proposed legislation that would become the first civil rights law since Reconstruction in 1957. The bill was passed and signed into law by Eisenhower on September 9, 1957. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and empowered federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote.
In this Jan. 18, 1964 file photo, President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, talks with civil rights leaders in the White House in Washington. From left, are, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; James Farmer, national director of the Committee on Racial Equality; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Whitney Young, executive director of the Urban League. (AP Photo, File)