Debate on the Civil Rights Act

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World War II brought African Americans closer to the mainstream of American life than ever before. Many moved out of the South to take jobs in defense industries. Others served in the still segregated military. (President Truman integrated the military in 1948.) Still, they were not fully part of American life. In the 1950s, African Americans and their allies organized a movement to gain full civil rights, to realize a dream too long deferred, as Langston Hughes put it in “Harlem.” Boycotts of white businesses, public transportation, and marches gave impetus to the movement. Reputedly one of the most segregated cities in the United States, Birmingham, Alabama became, in 1963,  a center of protest and action against discrimination and the denial of civil rights. Faced with continuing discrimination and rising protests, President John F. Kennedy decided to support a new civil rights law. (Congress had passed a series of such laws during the decade following the Civil War.) On June 11, 1963, after consulting with Congressional leaders, Kennedy addressed the American people to explain why the new law was necessary. Eight days later he sent the bill to Congress.

Opponents objected to various provisions, including equal access to public accommodations, but also to what they felt was its unconstitutional extension of federal power. Supporters organized a March on Washington in August 1963, at which Martin Luther King gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Stressing non-violent civil disobedience, King had become the leader of the Civil Rights movement. Opposition in Congress was sufficient, however, to prevent passage of the law. When Lyndon Johnson became president following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, he pushed for the new law, in part as a memorial to Kennedy. The law was passed July 2, 1964.

A motel in Atlanta, Georgia challenged the constitutionality of the public accommodation portion of the bill. The case reached the Supreme Court, which decided in December 1964 that the provision was a constitutional exercise of the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce. Attorneys General from Florida and Virginia had filed briefs urging that the lower court decision affirming the law be reversed, while attorneys general from California, Massachusetts and New York had filed briefs urging that it be upheld.

Originally Broadcast on CBS Reports: Filibuster—Birth Struggle of a Law, March 18, 1964. Available at The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom, Library of Congress. Senator Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978), was the majority whip and floor manager of the bill; Senator Strom Thurmond (1902–2003) one of its staunchest opponents. Thurmond, then Governor of South Carolina, had split from the Democratic party in 1948 to help form the States’ Rights Democratic Party in opposition to the civil rights policies of President Truman (Truman had established a Civil Rights Commission and ended segregation in the U.S. Military in 1948) and the Democratic Party. The Democrats, in an effort led by Hubert Humphrey, had adopted a civil rights plank in its 1948 platform – against the wishes of Truman, who feared that it would split the party. The States Rights Democratic party all but disappeared after the 1948 election, which Truman won.

Senator Hubert Humphrey:

We simply have to face up to this question: Are we as a nation now ready to guarantee equal protection of the laws as declared in our Constitution to every American regardless of his race, his color, or his creed? The time has arrived for this nation to create a framework of law in which we can resolve our problems honorably and peacefully. Each American knows that the promises of freedom and equal treatment found in the Constitution and the laws of this country are not being fulfilled for millions of our Negro citizens and for some other minority groups. Deep in our heart we know, we know that such denials of civil rights, which we have heard about, which we have witnessed, are still taking place today. And we know that as long as freedom and equality is denied to anyone, it in a sense weakens all of us. There is indisputable evidence that fellow Americans who happen to be Negro have been denied the right to vote in a flagrant fashion. And we know that fellow Americans who happen to be Negro have been denied equal access to places of public accommodation, denied in their travels the chance for a place to rest and to eat and to relax. We know that one decade after the Supreme Court’s decision declaring school segregation to be unconstitutional that less than two percent of the Southern school districts are desegregated. And we know that Negroes do not enjoy equal employment opportunities. Frequently, they are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Now the time has come for us to correct these evils, and the civil rights bill before the Senate is designed for that purpose. It is moderate, it is reasonable, it is well designed. It was passed by the House 290 to 130. It is bi-partisan, and I think it will help give us the means to help secure, for example, the right to vote for all of our people, and it will give us the means to make possible the admittance to school rooms of children regardless of their race. And it will make sure that no American will have to suffer the indignity of being refused service at a public place. This passage of the civil rights bill, to me, is one of the great moral challenges of our time. This is not a partisan issue, this is not a sectional issue, this is, in essence, a national issue, and it is a moral issue. And it must be won by the American people.

Senator Strom Thurmond:

Mr. Sevareid1 and my colleague, Senator Humphrey: This bill, in order to bestow preferential rights on a favored few, who vote in block, would sacrifice the Constitutional rights of every citizen, and would concentrate in the national government arbitrary powers, unchained by laws, to suppress the liberty of all. This bill makes a shambles of Constitutional guarantees and the Bill of Rights. It permits a man to be jailed and fined without a jury trial. It empowers the national government to tell each citizen who must be allowed to enter upon and use his property without any compensation or due process of law as guaranteed by the Constitution. This bill would take away the rights of individuals and give to government the power to decide who is to be hired, fired and promoted in private businesses. This bill would take away the right of individuals and give to government the power to abolish the seniority rule in labor unions and in apprenticeship programs. This bill would abandon the principle of a government of laws in favor of a government of men. It would give the power in government to government bureaucrats to decide what is discrimination. This bill would open wide the door for political favoritism with federal funds. It would vest the power in various bureaucrats to give or withhold grants, loans, and contracts on the basis of who, in the bureaucrats’ discretion, is guilty of the undefined crime of discrimination. It is because of these and other radical departures from our Constitutional system that the attempt is being made to railroad this bill through Congress without following normal procedures.2 It was only after lawless riots and demonstrations sprang up all over the country that the administration, after two years in office, sent this bill to Congress where it has been made even worse. This bill is intended to appease those waging a vicious campaign of civil disobedience. The leaders of the demonstrations have already stated that passage of the bill will not stop the mobs. Submitting to intimidation will only encourage further mob violence to gain preferential treatment. The issue is whether the Senate will pay the high cost of sacrificing a precious portion of each and every individual’s Constitutional rights in a vain effort to satisfy the demands of the mob. The choice is between law and anarchy. What shall rule these United States: the Constitution or the mob?

  1. 1. Eric Sevareid, a journalist, was the debate moderator.
  2. 2. Thurmond refers to the legislative maneuvers of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (1903–2001; D - MT) to prevent the Civil Rights bill from being bottled up in the Judiciary Committee, which was chaired by James Eastland (D - MS), who supported segregation and opposed the bill.
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