Summer 2004, Vol. 36, No. 2
LBJ Champions the Civil Rights Act of 1964
By Ted Gittinger and Allen Fisher
Just five days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson went before Congress and spoke to a nation still stunned from the events in Dallas that had shocked the world.
Johnson made it clear he would pursue the slain President's legislative agenda—especially a particular bill that Kennedy had sought but that faced strong and vehement opposition from powerful southern Democrats.
"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," Johnson told the lawmakers.
Then, serving notice on his fellow southern Democrats that they were in for a fight, he said: "We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law."
That chapter became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Forty years ago, Johnson set out to do what he had done in 1957 and 1960 as Senate majority leader—steer a civil rights bill through a Congress controlled to a great extent by southern Democrats who so strongly opposed it. But he was no longer majority leader and could not buttonhole wavering members in the cloakroom or do horse-trading with them to get what he wanted or promise rewards or punishments.
This is the story of how Lyndon Johnson set the stage for this legislation years before and how he choreographed passage of this historic measure in 1964—a year when the civil rights movement was rapidly gaining strength and when racial unrest was playing a role in the presidential campaign.
The story is often told, but this account is supplemented with details discovered in recent years with the opening of Johnson's White House telephone recordings and with excerpts from the oral history collection at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.
It begins in 1957, with Johnson as Senate majority leader, engineering passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, a feat generally regarded as impossible until he did it.
"To see Lyndon Johnson get that bill through, almost vote by vote," said Pultizer Prize–winning LBJ biographer Robert Caro, "is to see not only legislative power but legislative genius."
One key to Johnson's success was that he managed to link two completely unrelated issues: civil rights and dam construction in Hells Canyon in the Sawtooth Mountains of America's far northwest. Western senators were eager for the dam, which would produce enormous amounts of electricity. For years the advocates of public power and private power interests had fought to determine whether the dams would be built by government or private companies.
Those favoring public power were generally liberals from the Northwest states; they were liberal on civil rights as well, but they had no large numbers of African American voters in their states to answer to, so a vote against civil rights would not hurt them very much. LBJ brokered an agreement that traded some of their votes to support the southern, conservative position favoring a weak civil rights bill. In return, southerners would vote for public power at Hells Canyon.
A key issue in the 1957 bill, as originally written, was its provision that certain violations of it could be tried in court without benefit of a jury. But, as Senator Hubert H. Humphrey recalled, the issue of whether to have jury trials included in the 1957 bill was a terribly difficult matter even for many of the liberals. Humphrey said his populist background had emphasized the importance of jury trials, yet he realized that southern juries would never convict any white person accused of violating a civil rights law.
Nevertheless the liberals took the hard line, that there should be no jury trials, and that violations of the law should be subject to criminal contempt proceedings, not civil contempt. Humphrey also remembered that LBJ had convinced Senator John F. Kennedy to vote for jury trials, and that it never seemed to hurt Kennedy's liberal credentials. Jury trials were included in the final act.
As a result, the 1957 Civil Rights Act was nearly toothless legislation—which is one reason it was able to win Senate approval. Still, it had significance. George Reedy, an assistant to LBJ for many years, anticipated later authors with his evaluation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, when he wrote in 1983:
This is the point which has probably caused the most confusion among students of the political process. Their mistake has been to examine the 1957 bill solely on the basis of its merits. The more important reality is that it broke down the barriers to civil rights legislation and made possible more sweeping acts which followed later. . . . [T]he Senate is an on-going body and its acts must be analyzed not just in terms of what they do but how they pave the way for doing other things. [Emphasis in the original.]
In his oral history, Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who wrote the 1957 bill, may have overstated his case when he said that the finished Civil Rights Act "was a revolutionary bill . . . . it was worth the compromise. . . . I think the liberals were pretty jubilant that we had this breakthrough."
Johnson also engineered Senate passage of the 1960 Civil Rights Act, which again was nearly toothless. Both acts primarily focused on voting rights, and neither provided realistic means of enforcement. But they placed the civil rights issue on the legislative agenda and foreshadowed future battles for broader, tougher legislation.
The Kennedy administration took office in 1961 as national sentiment in favor of stronger civil rights legislation,with means of enforcement, was growing.
President Kennedy, however, was loath to ask the Congress for strong legislation on the issue. Although he was personally sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, his political instincts warned against taking action.
Then came one of those events that forces the hand of a cautious leader.
On May 2, 1963, a horrified country watched on television as the public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, T. Eugene "Bull" Connor, and his policemen and firemen descended on hundreds of African American marchers, including schoolchildren, with attack dogs, nightsticks, and fire hoses.
In response to the resulting national uproar, on June 11 Kennedy went on national television to announce that he was sending a tough civil rights bill to the Congress. A few hours later, Medgar Evers, director of the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was murdered in the driveway of his house.
Kennedy now began a very public lobbying campaign, pressing various private organizations to desegregate and demonstrate support for his bill. This was sure to arouse the enmity of powerful southerners in the Democratic-controlled Congress, and that had serious implications: Southern Democrats chaired twelve of eighteen committees in the Senate and twelve of twenty-one in the House. It meant putting the President's entire legislative agenda at risk.
One part of that agenda was the President's proposed tax reduction, which he wanted badly. He believed that it would stimulate the economy and thus have a salutary influence on the 1964 election. But it needed time to do its work, so it had to be passed soon. That would be difficult. Congressional conservatives already disliked the bill on its face because it would create deficits.
If Kennedy were to insist on a civil rights bill, it could well tie up the Congress in a wrangle that might keep the tax bill from ever reaching to the House floor.
Kennedy decided to take the chance, but he had nagging doubts. He asked his brother Robert, "Do you think we did the right thing by sending the legislation up? Look at the trouble it's got us in." They had no choice, the attorney general responded, the issue had to be faced up to—and right away.
On June 26 the House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 began hearings on the civil rights bill. The subcommittee was dominated by liberals and chaired by Celler, who also headed the full committee, which was more balanced in membership. It was expected that the bill would not have much trouble in the subcommittee, and in August, Celler announced that they would begin closed sessions to "mark up" the bill into final form.
But President Kennedy had secretly asked Celler to hold up the civil rights bill until the tax bill was out of the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Representative Wilbur Mills of Arkansas. If the civil rights bill came out first, Kennedy feared that Mills would retaliate by killing the tax measure—and Mills, a fiscal conservative, disliked the tax cut on principle in any case. Even if Mills did not quash the bill, conservatives on the Senate Finance Committee were perfectly capable of doing so.
Meanwhile, the pressure for action on civil rights continued to grow. The biggest lobbying effort ever seen in the nation's capital, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, took place in the summer of 1963.
There had been considerable worry in the administration that the event would turn ugly, perhaps degenerate into a massive riot. It had happened at other marches. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a chief organizer of the march, recalled meeting with President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson on that question:
The whole question involved there was the correctness of the strategy of staging a march as big as this in Washington. And how it could be controlled, so that it would not get out of hand. . . . President Kennedy was a bit worried about it. . . .
One of the problems was the matter of spilling over into the streets and becoming involved with violence. Now, our position was that we could not guarantee what would happen, but we had taken the precautions to plan the march [in detail], with a view to avoiding violence.
On August 28, nearly a quarter of a million people gathered around the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., declare, "I have a dream." There was no violence.
On September 10 the House Ways and Means Committee at long last approved the tax cut bill, thus clearing the way for Celler's subcommittee to mark up the civil rights bill—not that the tax bill was out of the woods by any means. It still had to go to the House Rules Committee, chaired by powerful archconservative "Judge" Howard W. Smith, a Democrat from Virginia, where it would be scheduled for consideration by the full House—unless Smith killed it first.
Then, external events altered the congressional schedule.
On September 15, four little African American girls were killed in Birmingham when a bomb exploded under the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. There was enormous national outrage, and the liberals on the Celler subcommittee responded by introducing amendments to the civil rights bill to strengthen it far beyond what William McCulloch, the leading moderate Republican member, thought could be voted out of the House.
Chairman Celler, however, accepted the amendments. His strategy was to report out of the subcommittee a bill so strong that it could not win approval in the full committee. Then Celler would work for compromise and get most of what he had wanted in the first place.
The stronger version of the bill was reported favorably to the full committee on October 2, and the political infighting began in earnest.
Lawrence F. O'Brien, President Kennedy's and later President Johnson's chief of liaison with the Congress, recalled it this way:
[Y]ou had a battle on two fronts simultaneously. You had a battle with the conservatives on the committee, the southern Democrats, conservative Republicans, but you had just as tough a battle with the liberals. Their position was the old story of the half loaf or three-quarters of a loaf, and [now they were saying] "we'll settle for nothing less [than the whole loaf.]" . . . We shared their views, and we'd love to do it their way.
We were accused by some of being weak-kneed but, my God, are you going to have meaningful legislation or are you going to sit around for another five or ten years while you play this game? Those liberals sat around saying, "No, we won't accept anything but the strongest possible civil rights bill, and we won't vote for anything less than that." To kill civil rights in that Judiciary Committee was an appalling possibility! And it was not only a possibility, it came darn close to an actuality.
The Kennedy administration had wanted to get past the civil rights fight by the end of 1963, so as not to have the struggle continue into the following election year. That hope had by now gone by the boards, even if the committee reported favorably on the bill, and promptly. It took until November 19 for the measure to make it to the Rules Committee to be scheduled for consideration on the floor of the House. And Rules Committee Chairman Smith was certain to seek ways to stifle the bill first.
But at 12:30 p.m., on a sunny November 22 in Dallas, everything changed.
Jack Valenti, a top aide to Johnson, gave this account of what happened on the night of John Kennedy's assassination:
Twelve hours later, LBJ was in his home in Spring Valley, three trusted friends by his side—the late Cliff Carter, Bill Moyers, and myself. He lay on his huge bed in his pajamas watching television, as the world, holding its breath in anxiety and fear, considered that this alien cowboy was suddenly become the leader of the United States.
That night he ruminated about the days that lay ahead, sketching out what he planned to do, in the almost five hours that we sat there with him. Though none of us who listened realized it at the time, he was revealing the design of the Great Society. He had not yet given it a name, but he knew with stunning precision the mountaintop to which he was going to summon the people.
In his address to the joint session of Congress on November 27, President Johnson gave notice that he wanted quick action on both civil rights and the tax bill:
I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color. There could be no greater source of strength to this Nation both at home and abroad.
And second, no act of ours could more fittingly continue the work of President Kennedy than the early passage of the tax bill for which he fought all this long year. This is a bill designed to increase our national income and Federal revenues, and to provide insurance against recession. That bill, if passed without delay, means more security for those now working, more jobs for those now without them, and more incentive for our economy.
On November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, Johnson met with Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, to talk about the civil rights bill.
"He was asking us if we wanted it, if we would do the things required to be done to get it enacted," Wilkins recalled. "He said he could not enact it himself. He was the President of the United States. He would give it his blessing. He would aid it in any way in which he could lawfully under the Constitution, but that he could not lobby for the bill. And nobody expected him to lobby for the bill, and he didn't think we expected him to lobby for the bill. But in effect he said—and he didn't use these words - 'You have the ball; now run with it.'"
This was Johnsonian hyperbole. Given LBJ's legendary record for "lobbying" members of Congress, the President could only have meant that he couldn't get civil rights passed by himself. In fact the President had been on the phone that same day with the minority leader of the Senate, Everett Dirksen, the Illinois Republican.
"If Congress is to function at all and can't pass a tax bill between January and January, why, we&'re in a hell of a shape. . . . They ought to pass it in a week," Johnson told Dirksen. "Then . . . every businessman in this country would have some confidence. . . . We've got an obligation to the Congress. And we've just got to show that they can do something, because we can't pass civil rights. We know that."
Johnson meant that the southern senators were sure to filibuster against the civil rights bill, and there weren't yet enough votes to shut off the debate.
Ted Gittinger conducted oral history interviews for twelve years at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and is now director of special projects there.
Allen Fisher has been an archivist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library since 1991 and works primarily with domestic policy collections.