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Civil Rights Act at 50

The Senate commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a milestone in the legislative struggle to extend civil, political, and legal rights and protections to African Americans. The United States Senate played an integral part in this story.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)
Library of Congress

Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner authored the Civil Rights Act of 1875. ”Very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented,” he proclaimed, predicting that the act would be the greatest achievement of Reconstruction.

The history of the Senate and civil rights legislation began a century earlier, when senators such as Henry Wilson, William Stewart, and Charles Sumner proposed and championed bills and constitutional amendments not only to abolish slavery but to extend civil and political rights to all African Americans. Despite some early successes, it would take nearly a hundred years to achieve such aspirations as the Senate became a major stumbling block to civil rights legislation.

Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen, April 27, 1964
Related Content: Civil Rights Act of 1964
U.S. Senate Historical Office

Senate party floor leaders Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen (pictured) prepared for what promised to be a complicated and contentious debate. They selected party whips Hubert Humphrey and Thomas Kuchel to serve as the floor managers for H.R. 7152.

The long Senate debate over the Civil Rights Act began in February of 1964 when the House of Representatives passed H.R. 7152. When the House-passed bill arrived in the Senate later that month, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and a bipartisan team of senators and staff developed an effective strategy to reach final passage of the bill. As the debate, including a well-organized filibuster, continued through the spring of that year, Mansfield and his team enlisted the aid of minority leader Everett Dirksen to invoke cloture on the bill allowing for final passage on June 19, 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains one of the Senate's most important legislative landmarks.