Editor's Note: For the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Post and Courier has explored the impact of the historic law with an occasional series.
The Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on this day 50 years ago. It was a hard-won victory, a large step in the direction of equality and justice.
The law, initially proposed by President John Kennedy, had provoked months of contentious debate in Congress and generated fierce opposition, especially among Dixiecrats. Sen. Strom Thurmond was particularly vocal in his condemnation of the bill.
"(These) so-called civil rights proposals, which the president has sent to Capitol Hill for enactment into law, are unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise and extend beyond the realm of reason," Thurmond said. "This is the worst civil rights package ever presented to the Congress and is reminiscent of the Reconstruction proposals and actions of the radical Republican Congress."
Richard Russell, a Georgia Democrat, was no less vehement.
"We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states."
After weeks of filibustering, a compromise bill was passed on June 19 and was quickly endorsed by the House-Senate conference committee.
On the evening of June 21, three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss., went missing. James Cheney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were volunteers with the Congress of Racial Equality, and part of the Mississippi Summer Project, or "Freedom Summer" as it became known. The three men had been murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen and a deputy sheriff.
On July 2, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. It limited voter literacy tests, ended discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and desegregated all "public accommodations" engaged in commercial activity.
On Aug. 4, the bodies of the slain men were found buried under an earthen dam.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, The Post and Courier asked local civic leaders to reflect on the significance of the law and its implications for today.
Dave Dennis, Summerville resident, CORE activist in the 1960s
In regards to the Civil Rights Act, I think that it was a great and significant step in the right direction; it did bring the country in line with the Constitution. I do think that after the passing of the (law) there were programs instituted that may well have served as obstacles to progress.
For instance, the Moynihan Report attacked the black family structure and suggested that the largest problem with the black community was that there were too many single-parent homes and that one who lived in a such an environment had little chance for success. This was done without considering that black families had developed an effective extended family structure in which the children were the children of the community. This evolved during slavery to counteract the practice of slave owners selling off and splitting families for purposes of profit and control.
Also, black people integrated and supported white businesses while the white community did not integrate or support black businesses; this resulted in the closing of black businesses.
There was black flight - black professionals left black communities, contributing to the decay of the black community. Then came Urban Renewal, where in most of the major cities in the country, expressways were developed and moved through the major business sections of black communities, resulting in the physical destruction of those businesses.
These programs stripped the black communities of resources for survival, trapping poor people in a place without the support that communities need (and) contributing directly to a pipeline from childhood to prison for many black males. Was all of this intentional or just an unexpected consequence of programs not thought out well? I do not know. I only know the result.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers III, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church and former national staff member of the NAACP
I was 13, and it took a while before [the act] meant anything in South Carolina. The significance to me is that now, for people, it seems so implausible that it was even necessary. But for those of us that lived during that time, it was so necessary.
The radical change that the act produced came from blood, sweat and tears, something that should never be lost or forgotten. In the summer of '63, the four little girls in Birmingham. In '64, the riots. The assassination of Kennedy. It always takes some sort of catalyst. The assassination was a catalyst.
As a person growing up in Charleston, when I tell my young people about the days when we had separate entrances, they find that incredible. It was everyday kinds of things that people now take for granted. The bus was probably the most poignant and personal because when my mother had to use public transportation, she took us with her. She would have to pay at the front of the bus and then get off the bus and walk around to the back. One time, the bus started moving before she got back on. She was banging on the door, and the bus driver thought it was funny. That's the level of daily indignity that African-Americans went through.
It started a radical and gradual change, so much that now, it doesn't even seem credible that that's how it was. Often in our state, that's how change happens. When you think about Jadeveon Clowney and Tajh Boyd, you think about the state loving them and their jerseys being popular. But in 1964, there were no black football players at the schools. The same view and perspective to allow that kind of injustice still lives in many parts of the state. It shouldn't take as long as it did in this case to recognize an injustice and make it right. That's what we should take away from the Civil Rights Act.
Armand Derfner, local attorney and civil rights activist who spent time in Mississippi in 1965
It was more important in some ways than any other law because segregated public accommodations were the most universal and visible sign of a segregated society. Everywhere you turned around, they were there. They were the number one symbol of segregation. Getting rid of that overnight said, "This is wrong." It was tremendously important.
Other things were important, too - voting rights and other things - but this was the symbol that stuck in your face every single day. When it fell away, it was an indispensable step in saying that official segregation was over. It didn't solve everything, but we couldn't have gotten anywhere without the Civil Rights Act. Young people can look back and say, "How stupid that a society could do that!" Frankly, it's embarrassing to them that their parents and grandparents were part of it.
(When the law passed,) I felt like it was a breath of fresh air. It was almost like you had a haunted house that was dark everywhere, and you suddenly opened up the windows and the air came flying in. It was like part of saving a very sick patient.
We still have lots of problems with voting and employment and segregated schools and neighborhoods. We are still suffering over the effects of hundreds of years of slavery, but at the same time, we know that in public life, the things that we see every day - stores, restaurants, bars, bowling alleys - you're going to see people who are white or black or any color, and that's a sign that something is very different than it was years ago.
Millicent Brown, Claflin professor of history and one of the first students to integrate Charleston County public schools
It was extremely significant, given that it was in the aftermath of so many years of varying kinds of protests. The idea is that you're following all of the enormous challenges that had been going on from the late '50s all the way through the '60s, and (the act) was sort of seen as a culmination of all of those progressive steps towards changing ongoing discriminations socially, politically and economically. There was a lot of hope that this final piece of legislation was going to be the real indication that we would not be going backwards anymore. Unfortunately, that was not the case: We found that there were loopholes that were then addressed with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and housing was addressed later in the decade.
If we look back at the significance, we just need to be mindful that the reluctance to extend full citizenship rights to everyone is still very present, and there are ongoing measures that really continue to limit who is involved in major decision-making processes. So it's a bittersweet kind of commemoration. I've been involved in the past few years in a number of these commemorative events, and it's important for historical reasons that we remind people of these milestones, but commemoration is also a reminder that the very problems of access and discrimination are challenges that we can't forget about. The same problems exist now, but they express themselves differently. We have major problems now with voter registration. Overincarceration. Resegregation of schools. These problems are not new; they're manifestations of old problems that did not get corrected.
It's important to continue to analyze who it is and why it is that we can't seem to be moving toward the more democratic society that we claim to be.
Tim Scott, U.S. senator from South Carolina
Over the past 50 years, we have seen our nation evolve and grow in incredible ways. Today we celebrate the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave the generations of African-Americans that followed unprecedented opportunities to help achieve the American Dream. I have seen its amazing effects in my own family, where my grandfather, who grew up picking cotton and unable to read, was just able to see his great-grandson earn his master's degree.
As we look back at its passage, this landmark legislation was the direct result of advocates, community leaders, elected officials and everyday people working together to fight for its passage. Their fight for full access to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as promised by the Declaration of Independence was a major turning point in the lives of millions, and their efforts brought about change many believed could never happen. We are forever indebted to those who sacrificed so much in the name of justice.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the law's limiting effect on literacy tests. They were banned the following year.
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