50 Years Ago LBJ Signed The Civil Rights Act — Could That Happen Today?


Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The most important civil rights legislation in a century, it outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Could such sweeping legislation pass Congress today?

President Johnson was an arm-twister. That we know from history. President Barack Obama is not -- that we know from history as well. Both Democrats and both sons of the Senate, their styles and their challenges are far different. Johnson had been the Majority Whip and Majority Leader before becoming Vice President, and then, on that sad day in 1963, president.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Together, those laws changed society -- albeit incompletely -- ending segregation, reducing discrimination, and leveling the playing field in voting, at least until the Supreme Court dismantled it last year.

President John F. Kennedy worked to pass civil rights legislation. Five month before his death he proposed a bill. Five days after his assassination, Johnson told Congress,  "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."

Today, in "Why the Civil Rights Act couldn’t pass today," Politico noted that in our current political system, "the position of the GOP’s congressional wing on issues from immigration, to voting rights, to the minimum wage (while helping to rack up Republican victories in individual districts) is broadly alienating to most African-American voters. So are efforts at the state level to impose new voter identification laws or other limits on access to the ballot box that disproportionately affect black voters. All that makes it hard for today’s GOP to lay plausible claim to its undisputed legacy on civil rights."

The current congressional leaders gathered last week not to honor Johnson — or any of the legislative leaders who actually passed the landmark law — but to award a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, whose crusade helped create the climate that made the bill possible. In his life, racial tensions helped make King such a polarizing figure that both Johnson and John F. Kennedy worried about seeming too close to him, but in martyrdom and myth, he is the only politically safe ground on which present day leaders could unite.

At a forum at the Library of Congress the same day as the Rotunda ceremony — co-sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) to commemorate LBJ’s role in passing the bill — few if any Republicans were in attendance, and Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) made a fiery speech, noting that “the Red South” could yet be vanquished if hundreds of thousands of unregistered black voters signed up and cast ballots for Democrats.

All of America is forever indebted to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to so many Black leaders who fought with him, and who still fight today. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus deserve special praise and mention.

Their founding members:

Parren Mitchell (MD), Charles B. Rangel (NY), Bill Clay, Sr. (MO), Ron Dellums (CA), George Collins (IL), Louis Stokes (OH), Ralph Metcalfe (IL), John Conyers (MI), Walter Fauntroy (DC), Robert Nix, Sr. (PA), Charles Diggs (MI), Shirley Chisholm (NY), and Gus Hawkins (CA).

Lastly, the LGBT civil rights movement owes more than we can imagine to those who fought for civil rights of African Americans. Civil rights are rights for all. Our communities overlap, and yet there's not enough interaction and support for each others' goals. The NAACP has support the LGBT community far more than the LGBT community has supported the NAACP. It's time we all thought about that -- and worked to build coalitions.

After all, we're fighting the same opponents -- it's time we joined forces.

Happy anniversary.

For more:

Current members, Congressional Black Caucus

1964 Civil Rights Act Fast Facts

Text of the bill



Image via Wikipedia