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How the South Came to Rise Again: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed one of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history.

There’s an old saying in the South that “the South shall rise again.” And on July 2, 1964, 50 years ago, it began to do so. It has not stopped since.

That day, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was sweeping, to put it mildly.

It outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. It forbade the unequal application of voter registration requirements, such as literacy tests, and it banned racial segregation in schools, workplaces, and places of public accommodation, such as hotels, theaters, and restaurants. It was, in other words, the culmination of the civil rights movement that had been gaining strength since shortly after the end of World War II.

The bill then passed the Senate 73 to 27, with more support from Republicans than Democrats.

It had not been an easy passage. President John F. Kennedy had given a speech on June 11, 1963, on segregation and sent related legislation to the House a week later. It went to the Judiciary Committee, then led by Chairman Emmanuel Celler, a liberal democrat from Brooklyn. Celler and his committee strengthened Kennedy’s bill and passed it in November 1963.

But then it had to go to the Rules Committee, headed by Howard W. Smith of Virginia, a diehard segregationist. He indicated that he intended to take no action on the bill, effectively killing it. 

But the political dynamics changed after Kennedy’s assassination on November 22. On November 27, Johnson appeared before a joint session of Congress and said, “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."

Celler filed a discharge petition to get the bill out of the Rules Committee, but that required a majority of House members to sign it, a very high threshold. After the Christmas recess, however, public opinion in the North was moving strongly in favor of the bill and Smith allowed it out of the Rules Committee rather than suffer the embarrassment of a successful discharge petition. It passed the House 290-130. Only 61 percent of House Democrats voted aye; 80 percent of Republicans did.

Ordinarily, the bill would have then gone to the Senate Judiciary Committee. But that was headed by Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi and it would have been the bill’s graveyard. So Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield did a little parliamentary sleight-of-hand and the bill went directly to the floor.

The political dynamics changed after Kennedy’s assassination on November 22.

But there it stalled as Southern senators launched a filibuster. In those days, filibusters involved actually holding the floor, and this one lasted 57 days, including six Saturday sessions. Finally, Senate leaders introduced a substitute bill that weakened the House bill slightly and that was enough to get 71 senators to vote for cloture and end the filibuster. It was a remarkable success, as cloture was very hard to achieve under the rules of the Senate (in 11 attempts between 1927 and 1962, none were successful). The bill then passed the Senate 73 to 27, again with more support from Republicans than Democrats. The House adopted the Senate version and the Civil Rights Act became the law of the land.

It was one of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history. Segregation was over and “colored only” and “white only” signs disappeared from the American South. Black voter registration began to climb quickly and with it black political power. As more and more offices were filled by blacks, white politicians had no choice but to change their tunes. Formerly die-hard segregationists such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond now catered to the black vote. If racism hasn’t been totally extinguished, it has been markedly reduced and no longer wins votes.

Jim Crow was dead.

In those days, filibusters involved actually holding the floor, and this one lasted 57 days, including six Saturday sessions.

This, in turn, had a marked effect on the Southern economy. The South had been largely agricultural before the Civil War and it remained the most economically backward part of the nation afterwards, a third-world country inside a first-world one. But with air conditioning and the end of the racial tension and violence that had so pervaded the South for 100 years, the population began to grow rapidly and the economy to broaden and deepen. Major factories and tech centers sprang up to take advantage of the South’s mild, short winters, its low taxes, and its low-cost and non-union labor force.

This in turn produced greatly increased the South’s political power. In 1964, the 11 states of the old Confederacy had only 128 electoral votes among them. Today they have 160, a 25 percent increase, and the trend will likely continue.

Unlike so many major pieces of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had almost all positive effects and made this a much better country, one that more closely lived up to its ideals. Even its unintended consequences were positive. Not the least of those was that it allowed the South to rise again.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes "Time for a New Contract with America." Cliff Asness contends “The GOP Must Lead (Again) on Civil Rights.” Amy Kass and Leon Kass contribute “AEI Classics: The Origins and Traditions of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”


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