President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 while Dr. Martin Luther King looks on…
(Photo credit: LBJ Presidential Library, Cecil Stoughton photo)
In signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared:
“The purpose of the law is simple.
“It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others.
“It does not give special treatment to any citizen.
“It does say the only limit to a man’s hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability.
“It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.
“… We must not approach the observance and enforcement of this law in a vengeful spirit. Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions—divisions which have all lasted too long. Its purpose is national, not regional.
“Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity….
“This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our States, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country….
“Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole.”
Lyndon Johnson did not start out his political career as a champion of civil rights. Far from it! As a southern Democrat in the House, and later in the Senate, Johnson’s early rise to power came through his alignment with hard-line segregationists like Senator Richard Russell and the southern conservative coalition that fiercely opposed any and all civil rights legislation.
But as Johnson biographer Robert Caro tells the story in his powerful volume Master of the Senate, Johnson’s own hardscrabble roots and experiences with poverty and class humiliation gave him some deeper moral sensibilities that, while not always on display, helped him to see some of the true evils of racism and discrimination. More tellingly, however, Johnson’s hard-nosed pragmatic political instincts also led him to understand that his ultimate goal of winning the presidency would only come if he could lead the nation out of the old segregationist ways into a modern era of justice, equality and civil rights. Cynical? Yes, but Johnson was master of the use of cynical means to get at the right ends. He was an astute student of power, human failings and the force of history, and he wanted to be on the right side of history.
In the end, Johnson was, indeed, on the right side of history for civil rights even as he suffered other bitter defeats — he did not win the presidency in 1960, settling instead for the vice presidency when John F. Kennedy won the nomination. He was isolated, humiliated and angry at his powerlessness as vice president. He achieved his goal of the presidency through the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination, but astute politician that he was, he leveraged the national sentiment of those sad and fearful days to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ironically, Lyndon Johnson, the bellicose hawk and once-ardent segregationist is now remembered as a champion of civil rights but a failure on war and peace. The debacle of Vietnam led him to decline a second nomination for president in 1968, perhaps the unhappiest and most tumultuous year in American political history.
Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose wary partnership grew over the years, lived long enough to see the profound social changes made possible through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 50 years later, it’s hard to imagine the kind of rigidly segregated and unjust society that was “normal” prior to 1964, when it was perfectly legal to have separate accommodations, discriminatory hiring practices and blatantly racist private and public actions.
Much work remains. The dream of a truly colorblind society remains elusive, and racial hatred remains a deeply serious social, political and moral problem in too many places, often masked as some less offensive form of discrimination, but still a potent force for injustice and real harm. At the same time, a half century after enactment of what is arguably one of the most important laws in U.S. history, we continue to experience the powerful effects of social change driven by successful civil rights laws and policies. This success, while hard at many times, and certainly far from perfect at most times, also offers encouragement and hope for the ongoing quest to enlarge civil rights protections for all people regardless of their personal characteristics, private choices and public opinions.
We continue the quest to be a nation that respects and protects human dignity for all. The anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reminds us that the achievement of justice for all is not serendipitous, and courage, compromise and conviction in the pursuit of what is morally right must continue each day.