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5 facts about the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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July 2, 2014

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Here are five facts about the Act:

1. On June 11, 1963 two black students, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, arrived at the campus of the University of Alabama with the intention to enroll.  Waiting for them was Governor George Wallace, who was accompanied by a group of Alabama state troopers. When Wallace blocked the entryway to proven the students from entering, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach called upon the assistance of President John F. Kennedy who, later that same day, federalized the Alabama National Guard. One hundred guardsmen escorted Malone and Hood from their dorms to the university’s auditorium, where they registered as students.

Later that evening, Kennedy delivered a radio and television address on civil rights in which he called on Congress to act and "to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law" and "to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public — hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments."
 

2. On June 19 President Kennedy submitted his bill on civil right to Congress. The bill was referred first to the Judiciary Committee and then, in November 1963, to the Rules Committee. The chairman or the rules committee was Howard W. Smith, a Democrat and avid segregationist from Virginia. Smith indicated his intention to keep the legislation from coming to a vote on the House floor.

Later that month, President Kennedy was assassinated, but President Lyndon Johnson immediately began putting pressure on the Rules Committee to release the stalled legislation. Smith reluctantly allowed the bill to be sent to the full House on January 30, 1964. Although Rep. Smith was opposed to racial integration, he was a supporter of woman’s rights. Two days before the House vote, Smith offered an amendment to insert "sex" after the word "religion," sex as a protected class of Title VII of the Act.
 

3. The legislation passed the House on February 10, 1964 by a vote of 290–130. When the bill came before the full Senate for debate on March 30, 1964, the "Southern Bloc" of 18 senators (17 Democrats and one Republican) launched a filibuster to prevent its passage. Senate rules permit the tactic called filibuster which allows a senator, or series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn" (usually 60 out of 100 senators) brings debate to a close by invoking cloture under Senate Rule XXII.
 

The filibuster by the Southern Bloc lasted for 54 days, during which no other Senate business could be conducted. Never in history had the Senate been able to muster enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill, but on June 19 the filibuster was broken and a version of the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 73–27.

4. The stated purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is:

(1) To enforce the constitutional right to vote.

(2) To give U.S. District Courts jurisdiction to issues injunctions, requiring an individual to do or not do a specific action, to curtail discrimination in places of public accommodation.

(3) To authorize the U.S. Attorney General to institute lawsuits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education.

(4) To extend the Commission on Civil Rights.

(5) To prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs.

(6) To established a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity.
 

5. At the time, there were questions about whether the Act was even constitutional since it prevented discrimination by the private sector. Several lawsuits immediately challenged the new law. In December 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. United States that the U.S. Congress could use the power granted to it by the Constitution's Commerce Clause to force private businesses to abide by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A related ruling, issued that same day, in Katzenbach v. McClung forbid racial discrimination in restaurants offering to serve interstate travelers or serving food that has moved in interstate commerce.

Other Articles in the 5 Facts Series:

Supreme Court’s contraceptive mandate decision • Fathers and Fathers Day • Euthanasia in Europe • Marriage in America • March for Life • Abortion in America • ‘War on Poverty’