Alicia W. Stewart and Tricia Escobedo, CNNPublished 1:53 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – hailed by some as the most important legislation in American history – was signed into law 50 years ago Wednesday.
It was known as the “bill of the century.” But many Americans today probably couldn’t say exactly what the legislation accomplished.
“It’s really the law that created modern America,” said Todd S. Purdum, author of “An Idea Whose Time Has Come.” “Its goal was to help finish the work of the Civil War, 100 years after the war had ended, and to make the promise of legal equality for blacks and whites, even though actual equality is elusive to this day.”
The law revolutionized a country where blacks and whites could not eat together in public restaurants under Jim Crow laws, or stay at the same hotel. It outlawed discrimination in public places and facilities and banned discrimination based on race, gender, religion or national origin by employers and government agencies. It also encouraged the desegregation of public schools.
“This did all of those things. It changed everything about ordinary life for black Americans all over the country,” Purdum said. “I think when you try to explain to people today – I have children 10 and 14 years old, and I don’t think they can really imagine a world like (this) existed before this law.”
The act had the longest filibuster in U.S. Senate history, and after a bloody, long civil rights struggle, the Senate passed the act 73-27 in July 1964. It became law less than a year after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Here are a few surprising facts about how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law:
1. More Republicans voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act than Democrats
In the 1960s, Congress was divided on civil rights issues – but not necessarily along party lines.GALLERYRELATED GALLERYThe civil rights movement in photos
“Most people don’t realize that today at all – in proportional terms, a far higher percentage of Republicans voted for this bill than did Democrats, because of the way the Southerners were divided,” said Purdum.
The division was geographic. The Guardian’s Harry J. Enten broke down the vote, showing that more than 80% of Republicans in both houses voted in favor of the bill, compared with more than 60% of Democrats. When you account for geography, according to Enten’s article, 90% of lawmakers from states that were in the Union during the Civil War supported the bill compared with less than 10% of lawmakers from states that were in the Confederacy.
Enten points out that Democrats still played a key role in getting the law passed.
“It was also Democrats who helped usher the bill through the House, Senate, and ultimately a Democratic president who signed it into law,” Enten writes.
2. A fiscal conservative became an unsung hero in helping the Act pass
Ohio’s Republican Rep. William McCulloch had a conservative track record – he opposed foreign and federal education aid and supported gun rights and school prayer. His district (the same one now represented by House Speaker John Boehner) had a small African-American population. So he had little to gain politically by supporting the Civil Rights Act.GALLERYRELATED GALLERYPhotos: Leonard Freed’s March on Washington
Yet he became a critical leader in getting the bill passed.
His ancestors opposed slavery even before the Civil War, and he’d made a deal with Kennedy to see the bill through to passage.
“The Constitution doesn’t say that whites alone shall have our most basic rights, but that we all shall have them,” McCulloch would say to fellow legislators.
Later, he would play a key role in the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act and become part of the Kerner Commission, appointed by the Johnson administration to investigate the 1967 race riots.
Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, wrote him an “emotional” letter when he retired from Congress in 1972.
“You made a personal commitment to President Kennedy in October 1963, against all interests of your district,” she wrote. “There were so many opportunities to sabotage the bill, without appearing to do so, but you never took them. On the contrary, you brought everyone else along with you.”
3. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. met for the first and only time during Senate debate on the act
The two leaders met briefly on March 26, 1964, while they were both on Capitol Hill to hear debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That brief encounter was captured by photographers.
“Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” King greeted Malcolm X.
“Good to see you,” he replied.
Known for his direct rhetoric in denouncing America’s treatment of African-Americans, Malcolm X was a stark contrast to King, who preached tolerance and peace in achieving equal rights.
Some scholars say the two could have formed an alliance, as Malcolm X moved away from the Nation of Islam. But it never happened: Malcolm X was shot and killed less than a year after their first and only encounter. King was assassinated in 1968.
4. The act didn’t help just black Americans
Women, religious minorities, Latinos and whites also benefited from the Civil Rights Act, which would later serve as a model for other anti-discrimination measures passed by Congress, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Under the Civil Rights Act, women who had been fired because they became pregnant, or were not hired because they had small children, now had recourse. As a result of Title VII, “male only” job notices became illegal for the first time.
Before the Civil Rights Act, women made up less than 3% of attorneys and less than 1% of federal judges; now they make up nearly a third of lawyers, according to the National Jurist, and three of the nine Supreme Court Justices are women.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was also created by the law, giving women a workable “hammer” with which to shatter the glass ceiling.
5. A segregationist congressman’s attempt to kill the bill backfired
Virginia’s Democratic Rep. Howard W. Smith was a staunch segregationist and strongly opposed the Civil Rights Act.
Smith, who was chairman of the House Rules Committee, came up with many tactics to discourage the passage of the bill’s Title VII, which would outlaw employment discrimination because of race, color, religion or national origin.
When Smith added the word “sex,” the House reportedly laughed out loud. The ploy was Smith’s attempt to quash support among the chamber’s male chauvinists on the grounds that the bill would protect women’s rights in the workplace, according to Clay Risen in his book “The Bill of the Century.”
Despite resistance, and complex motives, the act eventually passed, laying the groundwork for legal battles to ensure equal employment opportunities for women.
And whether he intended to or not, Smith ended up helping to set the stage for modern feminism.
6. The 1964 law didn’t do much to address discrimination at the ballot box
Black men were granted the right to vote in 1870 under the 15th Amendment (women followed 50 years later). Yet many obstacles – including literacy tests and poll taxes – prevented most blacks in the South from casting ballots.
Just a few months before the Voting Rights Act, the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified to remove poll taxes as a condition for voting in federal elections. All the 1964 Civil Rights Act did was to mandate the same voting rules nationwide.
It wasn’t until the following year that the 1965 Voting Rights Act would suspend the use of literacy tests.
By Lucien Holness National Negro Convention Movement
During the antebellum period, when Philadelphia was home to one the North’s largest free African American communities, the city’s black leaders launched the National Negro Convention Movement to address the hostility, discrimination, exclusion, and violence against African Americans by whites in northern cities. As national forums, the National Negro Conventions held from 1830 to 1864 brought together African Americans to debate and adopt strategies to elevate the status of free blacks in the North and promote the abolition of slavery.
The racial tensions in northern cities in this era can be attributed to black migration from the South and the abolition of slavery in the North, which dramatically increased the free African American population in the early nineteenth century. Many whites viewed blacks as an economic threat, a burden for state and local poor relief agencies, and a source of crime.
The idea for a National Negro Convention first emerged among black leaders in response to events in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the late 1820s. Following Cincinnati’s enforcement of Ohio’s “black laws” in 1829 and subsequent violence unleashed by white mobs against the city’s black community, in the spring of 1830 Hezekiah Grice (1801-?), a Baltimore activist, appealed to African American leaders throughout the North to devise a plan for emigration to Canada. His appeal went unanswered for several months until Richard Allen (1760-1831), minister and founder of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, called a national meeting of black leaders to address this issue.
Plans for a Settlement in Canada
The delegates who gathered in Philadelphia at Bethel Church from September 20-24, 1830, selected Allen as president of the newly formed American Society for Free Persons of Color. The purpose of this organization was to establish a settlement in Canada, viewed as preferable to the United States because of its lack of institutional racial discrimination, similar climate, and shared language with the United States. (Canada later fell out of favor among most blacks in part because of white hostility that blacks encountered and their conviction that they were due rights in the United States.) Before returning home from the 1830 Philadelphia meeting, though, delegates adopted a resolution that called for a general convention the following year in Philadelphia, thus launching the National Negro Convention Movement.
In addition to the first gathering in 1830, Philadelphia hosted the conventions in 1832, 1833, 1835, and 1855. Guided by middle- and upper-class black delegates, the conventions adopted a philosophy of respectability centered on education, temperance, and thrift. Black leaders believed this strategy would dispel popular stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as lazy, ignorant, and susceptible to vice. By demonstrating economic independence and success, convention delegates hoped that whites would see blacks as responsible and productive citizens worthy of equal rights. They also believed that respectability would lead to greater support for immediate abolitionism among moderate white reformers. Delegates also used the egalitarian rhetoric of the American Revolution, arguing that slavery and discrimination were incompatible with the nation’s founding documents.
Although strategies of respectability and moral persuasion dominated, a younger generation of activists in the 1840s and 1850s began to endorse more militant solutions. Black nationalism was one option, a controversial position that called for African Americans to establish a separate colony in Africa, the Caribbean, or Central America. Many black Philadelphians rejected this strategy, believing that respectability and interracial cooperation were the best route to ending slavery and securing equality.
A Stronger Collective Voice Emerges
Launched during an important period of black political activism, the National Negro Convention Movement created a stronger collective voice among African Americans and a forum for devising national strategies to confront the growing racial hostility. Although the convention movement did not end slavery or gain equal rights for African Americans, by the outbreak of the Civil War some other notable goals were achieved. Delegates established manual labor schools that trained a number of blacks in skilled trades. The convention also created the American Moral Reform Society (1835-1841), an organization headquartered in Philadelphia and led by local businessmen James Forten (1766-1842) and William Whipper (1804-1876). This group attempted to uplift black communities through education and promoting moral behavior such as temperance. The conventions also united African American communities from across the country into a national network of political activism. Finally, delegates formed a coalition with radical white antislavery activists to oppose movements such as the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization with ties to slaveholders that encouraged free blacks to relocate to Africa.
During the Civil War the convention delegates began to devise plans for the post-war Reconstruction period. At the October 1864 meeting in Syracuse, New York, delegates created the National Equal Rights League, a national forum to replace the black convention movement, and lobby the federal government for full citizenship rights for all African Americans on the premise of black service in the Union Army and the notion that all men were created equal. With numerous state and local chapters, the league’s members became active in northern and southern politics. Members of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League lobbied members of Congress to ratify a constitutional amendment in support of black male suffrage. The league successfully pressured the Pennsylvania Republican Party in ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while also continuing to demand protection of their civil and political rights in a new era in which white hostility increased and federal and state support for protecting black rights waned.
Lucien Holness is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland-College Park. His research interests include African American and Atlantic history.
Copyright 2014, Rutgers University
Things the Public needs to know… History hidden! – Nativegrl77
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