Striving Towards the Great Society: Remembering LBJ, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Momentous Year that Encompassed It

Written by

Dr. Miranda Booker Perry, Archivist at the National Archives at Washington, D. C.

LBJ and Civil Rights

Although I did not have the opportunity to attend the Civil Rights Summit in April of this year, having the event at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library was most fitting. A key component of the Great Society was Johnson’s efforts to end racial injustice. President Johnson was a masterful legislator, clever tactician, and seasoned politician; the qualities needed to get the Civil Rights bill passed in Congress. In his address to a joint session of Congress, five days after Kennedy’s assassination, he asserted,

First, 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. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it into the books of law. I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race and color.

President Johnson firmly believed in the adage, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ and he was determined to make the Civil Rights Act a reality even in the face of strong opposition.

Plight of African Americans

Although a century had passed since the Civil War drew to a close and the 13th Amendment was secured, African Americans in the South were living without equal protection under the law and were left to fend for themselves against white supremacy. Civil Rights Bills were enacted in the 1860s and 1870s, but they were not enforced or circumvented by the states. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, but was nullified by the Supreme Court Decision known as The Civil Rights Cases (1883). By the 1960s legalized segregation (Jim Crow laws) was entrenched in the South and blacks were treated as second-class citizens. Public accommodations such as restaurants, lunch counters, hotels, beaches, pools, retail stores, and cemeteries were racially segregated. Black people suffered numerous indignities at the hands of segregationists and were subject to brutal beatings, maiming, or murder if they dared to exercise their constitutional rights.

Significant Civil Rights Events that occurred in 1964

  •  “Mississippi Burning, the federal investigation into the the disappearance of civil rights organizers James Chaney, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in June 1964
  • Lt. Colonel Lemuel Penn, Army Reserve Officer and educator, was shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan members on his way back to Washington D. C. with two other Army Reserve officers after training exercises in Fort Benning, Georgia
  • Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) Initiatives
  • Freedom Summer (also known as the Mississippi Summer Project)
  • Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was established
  • Northern urban unrest/discontent (due to police brutality etc)
  • Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson meeting with religious leaders to discuss Civil Rights.

President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson meeting with religious leaders to discuss Civil Rights.

Supporting the Civil Rights Bill of 1964

Many photographs and documents pertaining to the Civil Rights Act are in our holdings at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. During April, May and June of 1964 numerous groups came to the White House to demonstrate or show their support of the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, namely, the NAACP, unions, religious groups and other organizations. The organizations are as follows: National Interreligious Convocation on Civil Rights in April 28, 1964 (groups from various major religious faiths joined together to support the passage of the Civil Rights Bill) meeting with the National Director of the NAACP and board of directors, June 24, 1964; and Civil Rights leaders in January 1964.He met with leaders of major Civil Rights organizations on a number of occasions and they are, notably,: Roy Wilkins who was the executive director of the NAACP, Whitney M. Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League, James L. Farmer, founder of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With pressure applied by various organizations, and especially Civil Rights organizations and their supporters, forward thinking members of Congress and a pro-active President the Civil Rights Bill was enacted and its provisions were enforced by the federal government.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (center), with Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Whitney Young, met with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office on January 18, 1964. (LBJ Library)

Martin Luther King, Jr. (center), with Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Whitney Young, met with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office on January 18, 1964. (LBJ Library)

Inner workings of Congress

President Johnson had considerable clout in Congress. His power of persuasion coupled with the “The Johnson Treatment” was especially useful in handling the diehard Southern Bloc in the Senate (18 Democrats and 1 Republican) who was in opposition to the Civil Rights bill. Southern Congressmen and senators used a variety of tactics including the Filibuster that lasted for more than fifty days in attempts to kill the bill. This was anticipated and Senator Hubert H. Humprey (D-MN) and other Senators introduced a substitute bill to end the filibuster and ensure that the act was passed.

The Civil Rights Movement was a grassroots movement. Had it not been for ordinary men and women, unsung heroes, along with Civil Rights leaders, non-violently protesting and demonstrating against racial injustice (and some losing their lives in the process) the acts passed in the 1960s would not have come to fruition. America’s Civil Rights Struggle galvanized Congress to pass and enforce legislation to protect the rights of people of color. It was a tremendous help, of course, that the leader of the free world, LBJ, firmly supported the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the same year, he also signed the Constitutional Amendment on the Poll Tax. The 24th Amendment, ratified on January 23, 1964, finally outlawed the poll tax which was intentionally designed to disenfranchise Southern blacks. On August 20, 1964, LBJ also signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law which is also known as the Poverty Bill. And this was just in 1964. He went on to sign such transformative legislation as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (officially known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968) among others. Why then, when President Johnson’s name is evoked, does the Vietnam War, started under the Eisenhower Administration, prominently figure in many peoples’ minds instead of the devastating blow he dealt to overt racial discrimination?

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., others look on, 07/02/1964. (The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., others look on, 07/02/1964. (The LBJ Presidential Library)

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2 Responses to Striving Towards the Great Society: Remembering LBJ, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Momentous Year that Encompassed It

  1. Erwin Delgado says:

    The Vietnam conflict effectively undermined LBJs social achievement, in terms of historical memory, because one of its major effects, in domestic politics, was the realignment of the major parties away from their traditional constituencies. The consequence of which we are still dealing with today. The implosion of the Democrats in ’68 opened the door for Republicans to attract segregationist Democrats into their ranks, and increase their presence in the growing Sunbelt states. Competitively, the Democrats ceded the South and the attendant bread and butter issues such as unionization and civil rights which had been rallying points before.
    Republicans quickly and effectively created a counter-narrative where the ‘activist’ Democrats caused the imbroglio in Vietnam, and by forceful party dictum, censured any mention of Republican causation for Vietnam, and for good measure, any and all national troubles from 1968 to today.

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  2. antoni says:

    yea I agree

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