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Civil Rights Act of 1964

Last Updated: 2006

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2, 1964. It was the first substantial civil rights legislation after Reconstruction following the American Civil War. Composed of eleven titles, the law desegregated public accommodations, authorized the federal government to sue to desegregate public facilities and schools, extended and strengthened the federal Civil Rights Commission, required companies and unions to allow equal employment opportunities, and authorized the U.S. attorney general to intervene in lawsuits where persons alleged denial of equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Although candidate John F. Kennedy campaigned for enlarging civil rights, after the election the issue’s controversial nature got low priority on his New Frontier agenda. However, in 1963 civil rights demonstrations and boycotts, widely supported especially by young blacks and whites, prompted the president to action. He proposed the initial bill (H.R. 7152) in a nationwide televised address on June 11, 1963. The basic elements of the bill passed the House Judiciary Committee in October, but by the time of Kennedy’s assassination (November 22, 1963), it was buried in the House Rules Committee. No action had been taken on it in the Senate by that time. Both House and Senate opponents sought to delay the bill to death.

Within a week of succeeding to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson made the civil rights bill a priority item for Congress and an issue of “honor to President Kennedy’s memory.” With Johnson’s prodding, the bill cleared the House Rules Committee on January 30, 1964. Despite an extended debate between January 31 and February 10, it passed with a large majority of Democrats and Republicans, 290 to 130. Almost all the opponents were from the southern states.

Despite passage in the House, the power of a filibuster in the Senate led many observers to believe that southern senators could talk the bill to death. Supporters of the bill avoided the southern-dominated Judiciary Committee by putting the bill on the Senate’s calendar. After that, nineteen southern senators maintained a filibuster for fifty-seven days until June 10. The substantive matters “most obnoxious” to the Southerners were the fair employment requirements and provisions to cut off federal funds to political entities, such as states (including state schools), for discriminatory practices.

History was made when the Senate broke the filibuster with a cloture vote that cut off debate on the bill. Cloture required 67 votes to pass. It carried with 71 in favor (Democrat, 44; Republican, 27) to 29 against it (Democrat, 23; Republican 6). The bill finally passed in the Senate June 19 by a 73–27 roll call. Among 6 Republicans voting with 21 Democrats against the bill was Barry Goldwater (R-AZ). Shortly after the bill passed, he won nomination as the Republican candidate for president opposing Lyndon Johnson.

The legislation and its enforcement were an issue in the 1964 presidential campaign. Barry Goldwater questioned the bill’s constitutionality and the extent to which it should be enforced. Lyndon Johnson pledged full enforcement, and his landslide victory gave impetus to vigorous enforcement of the bill’s provisions by his administration.

SEE ALSO: Great SocietyJohnson, Lyndon B.


Congress and the Nation (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1965).