by Jeremy Leaming
Almost 50 years ago this month the U.S. Senate overcame a filibuster that stretched from March to June of 1964 to pass the Civil Rights Act.
The filibuster led by a southern bloc of lawmakers was aimed at saving political lives and continuing the brutal oppression of African Americans nationwide. But pressure from civil rights groups, such as the NAACP as well as many other civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., helped to doom the filibuster, which was vociferously fueled by Sens. Strom Thurmond, Richard Russell and Robert Byrd. (Other organizations that helped build pressure to end the filibuster included the AFL-CIO, the ACLU, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as religious groups.)
The southern bloc had an aversion to civil rights legislation in general. But the bloc was seriously bent on scuttling the civil rights measure’s provisions that yanked federal funding from groups and projects that discriminated against African Americans and barred private and public workplace discrimination.
Sens. Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey pushed a compromise bill, lessening federal enforcement mechanism, which also helped put an end to the filibuster in early June. The debate over the civil rights legislation lasted more than 80 days.
On July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law, saying in part, “We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.”
Also, in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson declared that the unequal treatment could not continue. He said, “Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I sign tonight forbids it.”
African Americans of course were treated more than unequally. They were enslaved, and toward the end of the Civil War, many, but not all, were freed after the issuance of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
But Reconstruction was a failure, spawning Jim Crow in the South with its bloody retributions, mass killings of African Americans, and destructions of their families that stretched on for decades.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end the oppression of African Americans, it was nonetheless a catalyst that some historians credit with helping to turn the tide in the Civil War, and provide hope to many black families.
Two years after its issuance, on June 19, 1865, U.S. Army Major Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War had officially ended and that African Americans were freed. He also read the Emancipation Proclamation.
June 19 or Juneteenth is a national celebration of an end to slavery. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Democratic Whip, in a statement issued today celebrating Juneteenth urged Americans to remember the “heroism of those who risked their lives for the abolition of slavery and made Juneteenth possible, including Marylanders like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, and let us reaffirm our commitment in our day to the same values of human rights and human dignity that called them to action.”
It is a fitting time to do so, especially in light of the ongoing attacks on landmark civil rights laws like the Voting Rights Act. We are reminded that the advancement of civil and human rights in this nation has never been an easy endeavor; it has been painfully slow and incredibly bloody.
[image via Wikimedia Commons]