Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked a milestone in the long struggle to extend civil, political, and legal rights and protections to African Americans, including former slaves and their descendants, and to end segregation in public and private facilities. The Senate played an integral part in this story.
The Senate approved its first civil rights bill in the midst of the Civil War. On April 3, 1862, the Senate passed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, sponsored by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts. Signed into law on April 16, this bill freed all enslaved persons living within the boundaries of the federal district. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation granting freedom to slaves residing in Confederate states not occupied by Union forces.
Long before the Union victory in 1865, Congress prepared for the integration of four million newly emancipated African Americans into the political life of the nation. Post-war Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution extended civil and legal protections to all black persons, including former slaves, and voting rights to black men.
The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, abolished slavery “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Congress passed a civil rights act in 1866, over Andrew Johnson’s presidential veto, to provide basic rights to freedmen, including the right to enforce contracts, to sue in court, and to sell or purchase land. To assure that these rights would not be altered by additional legislation, and to affirm their constitutionality, Congress included many of the law’s provisions in the Fourteenth Amendment.
Ratified on July 9, 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all persons "born or naturalized in the United States," including former slaves. It provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” a concept voiced in the Bill of Rights, which the Supreme Court subsequently extended—in part—to the states. Congress required former Confederate states to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments as a condition for regaining federal representation.
William Stewart of Nevada, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, guided the Fifteenth Amendment through the Senate. Ratified February 3, 1870, the amendment prohibited states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment left open the possibility, however, that states could institute qualifications for voting. Although such requirements ostensibly were applied equally to all races, some states, including those formerly in the Confederacy, instituted poll taxes, literacy tests, or “grandfather clauses” that disproportionately discriminated against African Americans.
These constitutional amendments granted legal status to African Americans, but this protection was poorly enforced. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, terrorized black citizens for exercising their right to vote, running for public office, and serving on juries. Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871 to end such violence and ultimately empowered the president to use military force to protect African Americans.
Throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction era, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts argued that emancipation must lead to full social equality. In 1870 Sumner introduced a new civil rights bill to provide African Americans with equal access to such public accommodations as churches, theaters, trains, ships, jury boxes, and—most importantly—public schools. The bill died in committee in 1870, and again in 1871, but Sumner persevered, despite failing health. As he lay dying in March of 1874, Sumner continued to lobby his cause. “You must take care of my civil rights bill,” he pleaded to visitors, “my bill, the civil rights bill, don’t let it fail.” Sumner died on March 11, 1874.
A month later, after years of delay and in deference to their now deceased colleague, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sumner’s civil rights bill. The Senate passed it in June, the House of Representatives concurred the following February, and President Ulysses Grant signed the bill into law in March of 1875. Unfortunately, the bill as passed was a mere shadow of Sumner’s vision. In particular, it ignored the issue of segregation in public schools. The Supreme Court ended even this limited victory in 1883 when it declared the law unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Sumner’s Civil Rights Act of 1875 remains a legislative milestone. Eighty-two years would pass before Congress approved another civil rights bill.
Despite the legislation and constitutional amendments passed during the era of Reconstruction that extended federal protections to African Americans, many states, particularly in the South, enacted “Jim Crow” laws. These state segregation laws, upheld by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision, made the concept of equality elusive well into the 20th century. Violence towards black people throughout the nation continued, despite legislation such as the Enforcement Acts. The issue of lynching became particularly explosive in the early 20th century. Senator Robert Wagner of New York and his allies repeatedly attempted to confront such violence through anti-lynching legislation, but opponents successfully blocked all such measures, often through the use of the filibuster.
The Second World War altered opinions and expectations. African American veterans led a “double victory” campaign, declaring that those who fought to end fascism abroad would not tolerate discrimination at home. Civil rights activists launched a series of coordinated legal efforts to end Jim Crow, resulting in two significant Supreme Court decisions. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the court found segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. A second decision in 1956, prompted by the actions of Rosa Parks and the subsequent boycott of Montgomery, Alabama, public buses, found municipal and state bus segregation laws unconstitutional. These decisions were significant victories for civil rights advocates, but enforcement continued to prove difficult.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration sought to strengthen enforcement mechanisms and sent a civil rights bill to Congress in 1957. The House passed the measure on June 18. Senate Republican leader William Knowland and Democratic senator Paul Douglas maneuvered the bill directly onto the Senate calendar, thereby avoiding the Judiciary Committee and its powerful chairman, James Eastland of Mississippi, a long-time opponent of civil rights legislation. After 24 days of debate, which included Senator Strom Thurmond’s record-breaking speech of 24 hours and 18 minutes, the Senate approved a scaled-down version of the bill with amendments.
Although not as strong as originally proposed, this law created a Commission on Civil Rights, established a civil rights division within the Department of Justice, repealed a Reconstruction-era law granting the president the power to use the military to enforce civil rights laws, provided for jury trials in the case of criminal civil rights violations, and promised some protection of voting rights. Congress passed additional legislation in 1960 to strengthen voting rights guarantees.
That same year North Carolina college students staged a sit-in at a lunch counter in a Greensboro department store that refused to serve them because of their race. Throughout the nation, civil rights organizers led demonstrations to protest segregation, discrimination, and voting restrictions. Nonviolent in nature, these protests frequently faced fierce opposition. In August 1963 a coordinated March on Washington brought hundreds of thousands of Americans to the national capital to demand “Jobs and Freedom.” Congress and President John Kennedy responded by introducing legislation in 1963 to deliver on the long-awaited promises of civil and legal protections for all Americans.
Following Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963, President Lyndon Johnson proposed making civil rights legislation a national priority and called for passage of Kennedy’s proposed bill. In the House, following a contentious debate, congressional hearings, and much behind the scenes maneuvering, Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler of New York and ranking member William McCulloch of Ohio revised the administration’s bill. The House approved the measure, with a roll-call vote of 290-130, on February 10, 1964.
In the Senate, with the administration’s bill stalled by Chairman Eastland in the Judiciary Committee, civil rights proponents plotted their strategy while they awaited the arrival of the House bill.