There will probably always be a segment of the population that insists upon treating people in an uncivil manner. This is particularly true in their behavior towards people they perceive as different. Some of the more radical members go out of their ways to find loopholes or create exemptions in law, so gross violations of civil rights can be perpetrated.
The most egregious current examples are the so-called “religious freedom” laws. These statutes have been crafted to skirt civil rights legislation that protects minorities from discrimination and ill-treatment. The “religious freedom” laws not only violate the spirit, but also the intent of laws that shield citizens from uncivil behavior.
Because of the strong streak of intolerance within the supposedly freedom loving population of the US, Congress considered and failed to pass civil rights legislation, each year, from 1945 to 1957. Some weak protections were finally won in the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. Officially, the United States Commission on Civil Rights was formed to make recommendations to the President about civil rights problems.
At the same time, increasing incidents of boycotts, public demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins were bringing awareness of civil injustice to the public. New, vocal organizations were founded out of the growing frustration. They included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Discrimination and segregation based upon race and ethnicity were at the heart of this activity.
The civil rights crisis came to a peak in 1963. Violent encounters with protesters by the police were witnessed by viewers of televised newscasts. The “March on Washington” took place. There were the highly publicized murders of Medgar Evers and William Moore. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama killed four young girls. The public became more polarized with each passing day. The Federal Government was finally pushed into a corner.
The Civil Rights Commission gathered and collated its data, then sent their report to President John Kennedy. His administration soon composed legislation billed as a Civil Rights Act of 1963. Kennedy then went on national television to explain his objectives and intent to implement strong, sweeping civil rights legislation. A week later, he submitted H.R. 7152 to Congress.
During House debate, Kennedy maneuvered behind the scenes to build bipartisan support for his bill. More publicly, the President met with civil rights organizations, businessmen, labor leaders, and religious advocates.
After the assassination of Kennedy in November, the new President, Lyndon Johnson allied with Martin Luther King, Junior to pressure Congress to pass Kennedy’s bill. King stepped up his activism. The public, at large, also wanted meaningful solutions to end segregation and to foster civil rights.
During the nine day debate of H.R. 7152, the House rejected about 100 amendments designed to cripple the bill. Among the few that survived was one introduced by Howard Smith of Virginia. He proposed that employment discrimination based on gender be added to the bill. His intent was to delay passage of the bill by dividing proponents of civil rights. He was soon dismayed to discover that his amendment actually strengthened the ties between civil rights supporters and women’s rights activists. The House version finally passed on February 10, 1964.
It turned out that the worst was yet to come, in the Senate chamber. Members from the Old South worried about the bill’s potential to alienate their constituents who might retaliate with their re-election votes. Some were concerned about the expansion of federal powers. Anti-civil rights Senators began the longest filibuster in American history. The action lasted 57 days, bringing the chamber to a standstill.
During the filibuster, minority leader Everett Dirksen nursed the Senate bill through committee discussions and fostered compromises. Dirksen’s networking and diplomacy worked. At long last, following more floor debate, the bill passed the Senate. The House, in turn, voted right away to approve the Senate bill. The joint House-Senate bill finally passed Congressional approval on July 2, 1964.
In summary, the bill declared that discrimination, for any reason, based on color, national origin, race, religion, or sex was illegal in the United States. Within hours of congressional passage, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation on live television to explain the intents and purposes of the law. Then, in the presence of Martin Luther King, Junior, John Lewis, Dorothy Height, Roy Wilkins, and other leaders, the President signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.