7/2/2014 4:12:00 PM Civil Rights Act Signed 50 Years Ago Today Illinoisians played a role
Tom Emery Breeze-Courier guest writer
CARLINVILLE, Ill. — Vera Kelly notes the advancements in civil rights through her lifetime. She also says that plenty more needs to be done.
"There aren't 'white' or 'colored signs anymore," said Kelly, the President of the Davenport chapter of the NAACP. "We're getting there. But we've still got a lot of work to do."
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Considered a landmark in modern American history, the act prohibited inequities in voter registration as well as racial segregation in schools, the workplace, and other public facilities.
For decades, there had been calls for a civil rights bill, and measures had failed in Congress annually from 1945-57. Limited acts on civil rights were passed in 1957 and 1960, but activists pushed for more sweeping legislation.
On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to seek a civil rights bill. Eight days later, he sent his proposal to the U.S. House. The bill passed from the House Judiciary Committee to the House Rules Committee that November 20.
Kennedy's assassination two days later became a catalyst in passage of the bill. In a joint session of Congress on November 27, new President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that "no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long."
Presidential support for civil rights came with political risk despite large Democratic majorities in both houses. Modern scholars cite Kennedy's initial reluctance as fear of losing key allies. Long a Democratic stronghold, five Southern states shifted Republican in 1964, beginning a trend that remains today.
The bill passed the House in February 1964, but faced bitter opposition in the full Senate when debate opened on March 30. A "Southern Bloc" of nineteen senators, eighteen Democrats and one Republican, launched an 83-day filibuster, the longest in Congressional history, against the bill.
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) spoke for over fourteen hours in opposition on June 10. Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) claimed the bill was "unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise, and extend(s) beyond the realm of reason." Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) decried "any attempt or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races" in Southern states.
“Every fight was to continue to keep segregation,” said Jacqueline Dace, an Illinois native and project manager for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, scheduled to open in 2017 in Jackson. “They wanted to prevent access to jobs and education and any means of equality.”
After 54 days, Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and three others offered a compromise bill. After Byrd's stand, the Senate, in a rare move, voted 71-29 to cloture the bill. On June 19, the Senate passed the compromise bill 73-27.
Meanwhile, young volunteers were fanning out across Mississippi to fight for fair voter registration in the Freedom Summer movement. On the evening of June 21, three young volunteers were reported missing en route to a Congress of Racial Equality office in Meridian.
The incident became a national news story and fortified the debate on American civil rights. The bodies of the three men were found August 4.
“The national attention that incident created played a role in passage of the Civil Rights Act,” remarked Dace. “Certainly, there had been numerous murders before, and those never received that kind of attention. I certainly think the events of that summer had an effect.”
By then, the Civil Rights Act had become law. The House passed the measure 289-126 on July 2, and Johnson signed the act that same day.
In addition to racial equality, the act strengthened women's rights and laid the groundwork for future anti-discriminatory legislation. Many trace the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, to the precedent set by the Civil Rights Act.
The immediate impact of the act, though, was somewhat limited. Restrictions on voting rights in parts of the South remained, and resistance on a variety of fronts led to court challenges. Still, the legacy of the Civil Rights act affected daily life for tens of millions of Americans.
“Before 1964, only 6.7 percent of African-Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi, and today, we have the highest number of elected officials who are black,” said Dace. “I think any of the activists who were in Mississippi, or anywhere else, will tell you that numerous advances have been made. But they will also acknowledge that there is still a lot to be done.”
Kelly echoes those thoughts. "Some things are much better than they used to be," she remarked. "We're getting there, but we've still got a lot of work ahead of us. We still deal with racial profiling, and a lot of people don't have jobs. There are many educated, skilled African-Americans who are the last ones hired and the first ones fired.
“I look to what I call the “three P’s.” said Kelly. "The first is purpose, wanting to change. Then there's the process, to make it happen. Finally, we all need to keep our promises. Nothing is out of reach. If we all work together and do the right thing, we can make the world a better place for all of us."
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@ yahoo.com.