A window on the Legislative Process

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The Civil Rights Act of 1964:

A Window on the Legislative Process

What I want to do today is use the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to talk about how a controversial bill becomes a law. This law is a window on the history of the 1960s, but it is also a window on the way American laws are still passed today.

I. Into: The “Redneck” Response

One of the hardest things for my students to do is to understand how southerners (and southern Congressmen) could have opposed a law that looks so good in hindsight. To remind ourselves how controversial this law actually was in 1963 and ‘64, I want you to free write a short speech on the floor of Congress from the perspective of a southern senator opposed to Civil Rights. Respond both to integration in general and to the tenets of the law as it was originally proposed.

Basic Tenets of the Proposed Civil Rights Bill (1963)

  1. Enforces the Constitutional right to vote for African Americans.

  2. Justice Department can sue public schools that remain segregated.

  3. Justice Department can sue hotels, theaters, and restaurants that are segregated.

  4. Outlaws discrimination in federally assisted programs

  5. Outlaws hiring discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin


Your job is to explain why you, a venerable southern senator, support segregation and why you oppose at least two sections of this law.

II. Historical Background

A. Civil Rights Activists

Now that we’ve looked at a summary of the law, let’s back up and look at the history of how it got to Congress. At least since the Brown v. Board of Education decision civil rights activists had wanted congress to pass a law that outlawed discrimination and segregation not only in schools, but in hotels, restaurants, voting, and jobs. The 1963 March on Washington (officially the “March for Jobs and Freedom”) was meant to pressure Congress to address these issues, especially to end job discrimination based on a person’s race.
B. John F. Kennedy & Lyndon Johnson

President John F. Kennedy is often seen as a very liberal Democrat. But he had been in office for three years before he responded to the demands of Civil Rights activists. Finally, at the end of 1963 he proposed the Civil Rights Act. But he was assassinated before the Congress could debate the bill. It was up to his successor, President Lyndon Johnson (a southern Democrat) to pass the bill. Although Johnson did support the bill, there were many southern Democrats in Congress who hated it.

If southern Democrats opposed the Civil Rights Act, why did LBJ support it?

C. The Proposed Bill (1963-64)

Let’s take a look back at the basic tenets of the bill that the Kennedy administration originally proposed in 1963.

Can we explain why each aspect of the law was important—one at a time?

Basic Tenets of the Proposed Civil Rights Bill (1963)

  1. Enforces the Constitutional right to vote in federal elections.

  2. Justice Department can sue public schools that remain segregated.

  3. Outlaws segregation in public accommodations: hotels, theaters, restaurants, etc.

  4. Outlaws discrimination in federally assisted programs (What programs?)

  5. Outlaws hiring discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin

D. Exemptions

There were two exemptions to the section of the law regarding employment discrimination that are worth thinking about. First, the law did allowed religious institutions to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

Why did the Congress add this exemption? What institutions were affected?

If this form of discrimination is allowed, why not other forms?
The second exemption allowed any business with fewer than 25 employees to discriminate based on race, religion, or national origin.

Why give small businesses such an exemption?

Does this undermine the law? Why or why not?
III. Race and Sex!

A. Howard “Judge” Smith (D-Virginia)

There were not enough southerners in either the House or the Senate to defeat the bill on a majority vote. But even though southern Congressmen had fewer votes, they had more seniority.

What is seniority? (Length of time served in House or Senate)

Why is it important in Congress? (Seniority determines committee chairs)

Why did southern reps and senators have so much seniority? (one-party system)
Let’s look at one southerner who understood how to use the power of the seniority system better than almost anyone. Howard “W” Smith had represented a rural district from Virginia for 33 years in 1964. A country lawyer, known as the “Judge” after a brief stint on the local bench, Smith was a Democrat and the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee in 1963 and ’64.
Before a bill is voted on by the entire House of Representatives, it is debated by two committees. The first committee is made up of Representatives who have become experts on the topic of the bill. Since this bill involved the enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments that made discrimination unconstitutional, the Judiciary Committee first debated it. After they debated it, the bill was sent to the Rules Committee, which outlines the “rules” for the larger debate in the full House (such as how long the debate can last, what types of amendments can be added, and even whether or not the bill is ready for debate).

“Judge” Smith understood that he could block bills simply by refusing to let the Rules Committee debate them. When a civil rights bill was proposed in 1957, he delayed a committee meeting on the bill, because his barn had burned down and he had to go back to his farm. The Speaker of the House in the ‘50s joked: “I knew Howard Smith would do almost anything to block a civil rights bill, but I never knew he would resort to arson.”

In early 1964, Smith fought once again to delay the Civil Rights Bill, but Kennedy had just been assassinated, and Johnson said that he had to pass the bill to honor the fallen president. Even though Smith allowed the bill out of his committee, he had one last idea of how to scuttle it. Before the House voted, Smith suggested that one word be added to the bill: “sex.” This would mean that employers could not discriminate based on race, religion, national origin, or sex.

How might the addition of “sex” undermine the bill?
B. Martha Griffiths (D-Michigan)

Smith argued that he was simply following a life-long commitment to chivalry and women’s rights. As a young man, he had supported Alice Paul (head of the National Women’s Party), and he argued that because there were more women than men, single women who could not find husbands needed to find work to care for themselves. Still, it was pretty clear that he really wanted to divide the bill’s supporters.

There were only twelve women in the House, but eleven of them voiced support for Smith’s amendment to the bill. Martha Griffith’s, a Democrat from Michigan, worried about not including sex, saying, “When this bill is passed, white women will be last at the hiring gate.” “It would be incredible,” she continued, “that white men would be willing to place white women at such a disadvantage except that white men have done this before … your grandfathers were willing, as prisoners of their own prejudice, to permit ex-slaves to vote, but not their own white wives.” [post quote on the board]

What do you think of this quote? Is it racist? Why or why not?
C. Race or Sex (Small Group Discussion)

What I want to do now is have each table compare and contrast discrimination in the workplace based on race and sex. Come up with 3-5 ways that race and sex discrimination on the job are similar and 3-5 examples of how they are different.

Write answers on a white board as groups report out.
In the end, the House passed the bill with the amendment about sex discrimination. But then it went on to the Senate, where it faced a different kind of challenge.
IV. Civil Rights and Senate Filibusters

The Senate does not have a “Rules Committee” to limit the time that laws can be debated. These unlimited debates are supposed to allow the Senate to take the time to consider all aspects of the bill and make it as clear and effective as possible. But the unlimited debate also allows for a debating tactic known as the filibuster.

What is a filibuster? Why do Senators use it?
A. Strom Thurmond (D-South Carolina)

The longest filibuster in Senate history was launched by a southern senator named Strom Thurmond against the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. To delay the passage of that bill, Thurmond gave a speech that lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes.

How many of you think that you could talk for 24 hours?

How many of you have students that could talk for 24 hours straight?

Thurmond ended up reading the names out of the phone book. And even though that bill passed, it locked up the Senate and no other business got done. In 1964 southern senators threatened another filibuster. No one wanted that.

B. Cloture

There is one way to stop the filibuster, and it’s a rarely used option called “cloture.” If two thirds of the senate (67 out of 100) vote for cloture, each Senator gets only one hour to debate a bill, so the max time for debate is 100 hours before a vote. The cloture law was created in 1917. Between 1917 and 1964 cloture only passed 5 (out of 28 tries). It’s nearly impossible to get two-thirds of the Senate to vote for anything.

Why did the Senate make cloture so difficult to pass?
In the end, enough Senators from the North and West (both Democrats and Republicans) agreed to vote for the bill and they outlasted the Senate filibuster. The southerners knew that they had lost the battle (and the Civil Rights Act became law), but as we’ll see later this week, the southerners did not lose the war.
C. The “Nuclear Option”

Today, conservative Republicans are trying to weaken the filibuster in a move that is called the “Nuclear Option”—or in the words of our president the “Nucularr Option.”

What is the Nuclear Option?

Making passage of cloture a simple majority (51 votes) instead of 2/3s (68 votes).

Why is this change so important given the political climate today?

Why don’t some Republicans think this change a good idea?

Wouldn’t it be in their best interest?



Robert D. Loevy, ed., The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Passage of the Law that Ended Racial Segregation (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1997).

US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Legislative History of Titles VII and XI of Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1968).
Charles and Barbara Whalen, The Longest Debate: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Washington: Seven Locks Press).
Web Sites:

Gwendolyn Mink, “Civil Rights Act of 1964” Readers Companion to US Women’s History (Houghton Mifflin Publishers)


(Viewed 6/7/05)

Linda Simmons, “Teaching Activities,” “Historical Background,” & the Full Text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (National Archives and Records Administration)


(Viewed 6/7/05)

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