Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Civil Rights Act: Fifty Years On

Fifty years ago today, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

"In Mississippi, clergymen arriving from the North were given orientation sessions that included instructions on how to protect themselves after they had been knocked down (protection of the kidneys against assailants' kicks was emphasised). These volunteers were, of course, joining local black civil rights workers who had been risking their lives for years, and, like them, were virtually without protection, with nowhere to turn to for help; many of the beatings took place as policemen or state troopers watched. And looming over the volunteers always was the spectre of jail - and what might happen to them in jail. The sacrifices made in Mississippi would include the lives of three young civil rights workers - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, a young black man and two young white Jewish men from New York City - who were arrested by a deputy sheriff , released into a Ku Klux Klan ambush and murdered. 

Lyndon Johnson (left) and Martin Luther King (centre),
after the signing of the Civil Rights Act
In Washington DC, students from seventy-five religious seminaries from around the country divided into three-member teams (a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew) to begin a twenty-four-hour-a-day vigil at the Lincoln Memorial to pray for the bill's passage - a vigil they pledged wouldn't end until it passed. They visited - delegation after delegation - the offices of the senators whose votes were needed for cloture. Senators from the Midwestern states found themselves no longer able to maintain that they weren't against civil rights but only against changing inviolable Senate procedures by cutting off debate through cloture.

And when, as spring was turning into summer, the votes for cloture were still not there, President Johnson took, behind the scenes, a more direct hand. The cloture motion was passed, by a 71-29 vote on June 10, after a filibuster of fifty-seven days that was the longest in Senate history. There ensued another series of floor fights over proposed amendments to the bill before its passage 73 to 27 came on June 19. Thousands of people crowded around the Senate wing of the Capitol, cheering and applauding senators as they came out. On July 2 it passed the House. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law that evening.

It would require another piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to give black Americans the weapon - the vote - that would give them (in Johnson's words" the power "to do the rest for themselves." The 1965 Act would be passed after another titanic struggle, in which, with men and women and children being beaten in Selma, Alabama on their way to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, singing "We Shall Overcome" as they marched into tear gas, billy clubs and bull whips, Lyndon Johnson went before Congress and said "We Shall Overcome", thereby adopting the civil rights rallying cry as his own. When Martin Luther King, watching the speech on television in Selma, heard Johnson say that, he began to cry - the first time his assistants had ever seen him cry.

To bring black Americans into the American political system, Johnson had to break the power of the South in the Senate - and he broke it. It was Abraham Lincoln who struck off the chains of black Americans but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into the voting booths, closed democracy's sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life. Almost a century after Lincoln had freed black men and women from slavery, most Americans of colour did not enjoy the rights which America supposedly guaranteed its citizens. It was Lyndon Johnson who gave them those rights, acted as the redeemer of the promises made to them by America."

From The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

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