Earlier this month, four presidents of the United States and a number of civil rights legends assembled at the LBJ Presidential Library to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Violent confrontations in Mississippi and Alabama moved President Kennedy to call for a civil rights bill in June 1963. After Kennedy's death in November of that year, President Johnson took up the torch and made civil rights legislation a top priority. The bill faced strong opposition, including a fifty-four-day filibuster on the Senate floor, but on July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the landmark measure into law.

The following excerpts from oral histories in the LBJ Presidential Library offer first-hand accounts from key figures in the events leading up to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Mississippi and Birmingham

Ramsey Clark served in the Department of Justice as Assistant Attorney General from 1961 to 1965 and Attorney General from 1967 to 1969.
Ramsey Clark: I would say that events outran leadership throughout the period that I was at Justice. . . Clearly through '63, we were well behind the urgent demands for civil rights activity for legislation and for reform. And we tended to, as you so frequently do in our times, grapple with the problems on an emergency basis, when something would come up.

. . .

The summer of '62 was not one in which we were yet prepared on an organized basis with adequate resources to handle all the problems that we had in the South. At this time, civil rights activity was not only limited to the South, it was really limited to half of the states of the Confederacy, but Ole Miss was such a terribly traumatic event that it really brought us out of it.

. . .

For some weeks before September 30, 1962, which was the Sunday on which James Meredith was escorted onto the campus of the University of Mississippi, a number of us had been working with business interests and leadership in Mississippi to create a set of conditions that would ease the admission of Meredith.

. . .

Roughly, at Mississippi, there were fewer than two hundred federal enforcement people. They were deputy United States marshals; they were border patrolmen from the Immigration and Naturalization Service; they were prison guards, drawn from a number of federal prisons. These men, with the exception of the border patrolmen, are not really well trained for any situation like this. They have no crowd control training, at least they didn't at this time.

. . .

Even so, with fewer than two hundred men, and a crowd that, at the very least, outnumbered them five to one, and probably ten to one, they never drew a gun or they never fired a shot. There were two or three people killed, and there were some others pretty seriously injured, and there was a lot of shooting at the administration building itself, and the last time I was down there you could still see the pock marks on the columns where the shots had hit.

. . .

The only way that the crowd was kept at bay was by the tear gas itself. It would run forward in waves, and they would lob out the tear gas and drive them back and they were about to run out. If they had run out, then the question would have been whether the crowd would have kept coming, and if it had, it would have been quite a catastrophe. I'd say we came very close.

. . .

By midnight, as I recall, maybe a little later, the place was pretty secure, but some pretty rough and wild people had come from hundreds of miles away. People had come from Dallas and Atlanta, Georgia, for instance, hearing about this situation on the radio, they had been coming. There were all kinds of cars found with guns in the back seat and stuff like that. So it had the real potential for a massacre. It was the first situation we had been involved in, and hindsight would tell you that we weren't really prepared for it. I'm not sure you would ever foresee, but at this time we didn't have personnel who could really handle the situation like that, and it was some very cool heads, particularly at Ole Miss where the action was, that brought us through that all right.

Burke Marshall was the head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 1961 to 1964.
Burke Marshall: At Oxford, the University of Mississippi [incident] was a lawsuit, and a rather specific problem, which was difficult to handle, but for which the solution and the need were clear—it was difficult to achieve it, but you knew what you were trying to achieve very clearly. At the time of Birmingham in May of 1963 when there were the street demonstrations and the police dogs and the fire hoses and [Eugene (Bull)] Conner and [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], it had the country much more in a turmoil than Oxford. You didn't know what you were trying to do. I mean, that was one of the problems—that there were no clear objectives anywhere and you didn't know what they were trying to do. Negro leaders would call on President Kennedy to send in the army, but, of course, what would the Army do if it got there other than declare martial law and arrest anyone that demonstrated? And the objectives were not achievable by government; I mean there was no way the government could make restaurants serve Negroes or hire people. So that was a much more difficult and ambiguous situation.

On your trips to the South, were you ever physically threatened? Perhaps I should phrase that, how many times?

Well, I suppose, but I never took it very seriously. I remember once in Birmingham after those children—there were four children that were killed by a bomb in Sunday school, and Birmingham, for a few days after that, was really at war basically. There were guns all over the place, and there were guns all over the Negro areas. And I went into the Negro area one night. I couldn't get the FBI to take me in there, and I got the head of the Negro civil defense unit to take me in, but they sort of disguised me. They had a man on each side of me with shotguns. That was September of '63, I think.

. . .

They put a big helmet over my head so no one could see what color I was.

Ramsey Clark: I was down there in Birmingham several times in the spring [of 1963]. I'd say I was down there within two or three weeks after I had gotten back from Ole Miss. Right now, I have a fairly spotty recollection, but I can remember getting off the plane down there on a Sunday, just having come in from Washington and going straight to a meeting that the Chamber of Commerce was putting on without any feel for who was in the meeting or what they were talking about or what the context of their discussion was, but realizing how, you know, this thing had been pretty wild a few nights there when there was a real potential for serious violence and urging them to yield, to give some jobs in some of these stores, to open up on the city square the lunch counters, and all that sort of thing.

. . .

The national press was there in very great numbers, and this made it quite difficult locally because while the national concern and interest really compelled us to give an accounting to the nation as to what was going on, the very accounting tended to exacerbate the situation in Birmingham because to many people there, at first, it looked like our purpose was to dramatize what was happening and make them look bad. But to many there were questions of fact! "Are these guys telling the truth?" That and—that tended to wane, there were concessions.

. . .

I'm pretty sure that the first meeting that we had to develop legislation for civil rights in '63 came from the—in fact, I know it followed a memo that I wrote Bob Kennedy when I came back from an inspection at Ole Miss in about March. It was just before Birmingham was really picking up. I was very depressed about what I saw in Oxford, Mississippi, and I thought we were going to have to have some legislative techniques to move things more rapidly.

The March on Washington

Bayard Rustin was a civil rights leader and the chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Bayard Rustin:
The decision to have [the March on Washington] was based on the fact that Mr. [A. Philip] Randolph foresaw that the coming problem was an economic one, that we were well on the way to getting the nation to face up to the moral question. Therefore, that march was designed to bring economic pressure on the job question. It was called "The March for Jobs and Freedom."

Mr. Randolph, like Dr. King, is an extraordinarily marvelous and great man. But neither Dr. King nor Mr. Randolph really has much organizational ability. They are great dreamers. I don't think Mr. Randolph could have organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters if he hadn't had certain key people around him who did the dotting of I's and crossing of T's. And, of course, a part of his extraordinary greatness is that nobody knows better than he does that he can't organize. Therefore, what he has always done is to go out and work with someone who is deeply concerned about organizational detail. And I began working with Mr. Randolph in 1941 as the director of youth for the original March on Washington which did not have to take place. Therefore, over the years he came to have faith in my ability to do this sort of thing. But he's the one who conceived the idea.

Another interesting thing, Mr. Randolph refuses to raise money. He always jokes and says, "Well, you can raise the money. Don't worry." Which means that we often left Roy Wilkins holding the bill.

Louis Martin was a civil rights leader, journalist, and advisor to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Louis Martin: King was a very peculiar guy. You have a bunch of people in [the Cabinet] room. Unless somebody told you, you wouldn't know which one was King because King was very modest, soft-spoken. He wasn't an aggressive leader, but at the right moment he'd start talking, and that would tear it up. I can't explain it, but he had the quality that I noticed when I was in college, of great athletes. I used to watch him carefully. I never was an athlete, but on the football field you find all these characters out there looking active and ready to score. There's one son of a bitch that looks like he's lazy as hell. He's not nervous and excited, he's just sort of—and you say that son of a bitch is not going to be worth a damn, he's lazy. That's the one guy that tears the place up. I don't understand it. Do you know what I mean? But I could go right now and pick out, just watching, the one that's going to do the heroics. It's that relaxed, supremely confident but not particularly aggressive type that somehow comes through in the clutch.

And that's the way King was in this business of leadership. He had a lot of front-runners around him. In fact, he never started a program, you know. [Ralph] Abernathy would open it up and warm the audience up. And then King would come on. But it was always interesting to me that King never started anything. He had one of these guys do it, which is a fantastic technique. Cliff and I went over to Baltimore to see how it would work. He thought King was going to do a whole lot of talking. King just sat there, and Abernathy tore the place up. He got them all—and then King comes on. But when King got through with them, you could wipe up the floor with them. But that's the something that I don't understand, but it's part of the person, partly charisma and partly a sort of sixth sense. I can't figure it out either.

Bayard Rustin: When President Kennedy and the administration introduced what became the Civil Rights Bill of '64, the urgency of that bill obscured the basic reason for the March. . . [which was] economic reasons. And when the congressmen came down the steps at the March, the young people in the front began to scream, "Pass the bill. Pass the bill. Pass the bill." And by that time the March had become a call for the passage of civil rights legislation, per se, as against what it had really conceived to do, which was to raise the economic question.

However, I don't think that that took anything from the March. I think it may, in fact, have helped it. But in this regard, both the vice president and president were very distressed and did not want the March to take place and in fact urged us not to have the March.

Whitney Young Jr. was a civil rights leader and the executive director of the National Urban League from 1961 until his death in 1971.
Whitney Young Jr.: I never could understand this. I tried to point out to the administration then that if black people were violent people inherently, then we would have been violent long before now—or else we have the longest time fuse known to man. We certainly have had the provocations, but the whole history of violence in this country, black people have usually been the victims, and they've not been the prosecutors of it, and that we are by nature a people whose leadership has come from the churches and who have a great faith in ourselves and in our system. Given the way we were organizing it, at no point did I feel the panic and anxiety that members of the administration seemed to feel.

Bayard Rustin: Let me say that the very fact that we took some of the steps we took indicated that we conceived of [potential violence] as a theoretical possibility. And precisely because we thought it was theoretically possible, we did everything we could to see that it would not happen.

. . .

When you have that many participants, you cannot screen them. What we did was to screen the signs which they carried. We did not permit anybody to carry any sign at all—only the signs we provided, and placards. We also used great numbers of Negro policemen from the major cities along the eastern coast all the way from Richmond to Boston, and had thousands of them there who knew a great deal about crowd control. We also sat with the government officials—every department of government.

It was our request that the liquor stores be closed; it was our request that traffic be limited. We saw to it that there were very definite places for transportation. We sent out thousands and thousands of copies of two different little booklets telling people where to go, what to bring, etc. We set up our own welfare establishment in case anybody got lost or was in trouble. And with a quarter of a million people coming in, I think we spent less than $500 in emergencies.

Roy Wilkins was a civil rights activist who served as executive secretary of the NAACP from 1955 to 1964 when he became its executive director.
Roy Wilkins: We met immediately [with the president and vice president] after the gathering at the Lincoln Memorial. [President Kennedy] was bubbling over with the success of the event; the way it had gone off; the content of the speeches; and when he found that we hadn't had an opportunity to get luncheon between our conferences on the Hill that morning and the beginning of the exercises that afternoon, he sent downstairs in the dining room, which is in the White House, and brought up sandwiches and milk and tea and coffee for us. Then he was talking about our desire for civil rights legislation and the necessity of getting the votes in the Congress and of the registration and voting procedure back home. In other words, he was looking at it from a long range, perfectly legal, perfectly American point of view without lobbying for either side.

It was a very rewarding session and the president you could see was very relieved after all these predictions locally of the Washington merchants and the Washington people that the capital was going to be invaded by a horde of rowdies and vigilantes and that sort of thing. Some of the people who ran businesses closed their businesses and sent their employees home, gave them the day off and told them not only to go home but to lock themselves in their homes because the Negroes would be here tomorrow and would tear up the town. Of course nothing like that happened. And the president and some hundred and fifty members of Congress and the Senate who came over and were guests of honor for a brief time there, were all mightily pleased at the way the thing went off.

1963 Bill

Lawrence F. O'Brien was the special assistant to the president for congressional relations from 1961 to 1965 and was then appointed Postmaster General by President Johnson.
Lawrence F. O'Brien: As I recall it, we started [1963] with a rather modest civil rights proposal that was significantly strengthened in subsequent months. You can relate that to what was occurring out in the countryside. You're beginning to sense that this grassroots activity, this tremendous media attention, the leadership of Martin Luther King and the activity of others were beginning to build. You had Birmingham in there. You had all of this going on. So you started the year by saying, "We're going to take that further leap into the civil rights field." Then you no sooner had gotten that done than you began to note that there was a rapidly growing public interest, and that got you to strengthening your proposal.

George Reedy was special assistant to Vice President Johnson from 1961 to 1963 and White House press secretary from 1964 to 1966.
George Reedy: When I first read the [1963 civil rights] bill, I became very much concerned about a long preamble . . . the most dangerous thing you can do to a bill is a preamble. And this preamble was terrible. Well, you got the impression from reading it that the whole reason for civil rights is that blacks couldn't travel to summer resorts . . . it really made the whole civil rights thing look rather ridiculous, as though it were just a question of that they couldn't go to Las Vegas or something of that nature. . . . It appears we're passing this bill for the economic benefit of theater owners, who would otherwise be deprived of Negro customers. That's the way it sounded. . . . And then the most important single thing they had almost buried, which is that segregated facilities hamper both workers and employers in exercising a free choice as to where and whom they are going to work with.

Lawrence F. O'Brien: And [we] got into a terrible impasse in the House Judiciary Committee. You had Congressman [William] McCulloch of Ohio, the ranking Republican, who to his everlasting credit, as far as I'm concerned, personally committed to meaningful civil rights legislation and actively engaged in bringing it about. You were flying in the face of the longtime supporters of civil rights that were on the committee, the liberal Democrats, saying, "Wait a minute, this is in our view not a total civil rights proposal, and we're opposed to it. We're going to have the entire civil rights package as we see it voted on favorably, and we're going to vote against anything short of that." That fell right into the hands of the southern conservative Democrats on the committee, and the Republicans. They could see civil rights legislation of any meaningful kind would be blocked in the committee. . . .

Now we're getting to the realities of civil rights again. As this unfolded, and it became a very heated matter, we went to extremes in our effort.

Our position was if you don't spring a reasonable civil rights proposal out of that committee, where do you go from here? You've spun your wheels again. You've had this rise in temperature in the countryside in this area. You had hoped to benefit from that legislatively. There you have this tripod, if you will: you have the Democratic liberals in opposition; you have the southern Democrats in opposition; you have the Republicans basically in opposition. How do you ever bring this about?

. . .

Then it came to the point where Bobby Kennedy, Nick Katzenbach, and everybody else involved, everybody is pounding doors and becoming awfully frustrated and we can't seem to get over this hurdle. McCulloch is being cooperative and so is Manny Celler. How do you get a majority vote out of the committee? Clearly you had to find some Republican support to go along with the moderate Democrats and overcome the handful of liberal Democrats. How could you piece this together? You needed several votes.

[President Kennedy] and I discussed this. Our decision was to have the president contact Charlie Halleck. Now, Charlie Halleck was the minority leader; he was a conservative Republican. He was a worthy adversary. He was an aggressive, hard-hitting adversary.  He and I had a pleasant personal relationship, but that had not deterred Charlie from opposing us at every turn of the road with a great deal of glee.

. . .

There certainly was not anything I could look to in terms of potential support from Halleck on civil rights. But we have no alternative. There's nothing left. We've exhausted every possibility. So the president called Charlie, and he put it to him pleasantly. He said, "I need your help, need your support, and I wonder if you could see your way clear to talk to some of your colleagues on the committee and give us a hand on this." To my surprise and the president's, Charlie responded very well and said that he needed a little time, and he would check the members of the committee and see if he couldn't persuade some of his Republican colleagues to join us. He even set up a time frame, "I'll get back to you by noon." Maybe it was noon the next day, maybe noon two days later, I forget, but I remember there was a deadline of noon. Well, I don't think we jumped up and down with joy, but that was a modicum of progress. Charlie at least had told us whether he would really do it or not. Who knew, but he told us he was going to make an effort to help us in this instance.

The deadline came, and I was in the Oval Office with the president and no call from Charlie. We let the deadline go by, and we were really on edge. It went by probably a half an hour to an hour, and finally we were looking at each other, and what are you going to do? You might as well place the call to Charlie. And so he did. And Charlie apologized first for not getting back by the appointed time but said he had been delayed in being able to make his contacts, but he could now advise us that several members of the committee had seen it his way and would help vote the bill out. Well, we were just amazed. . . . The Charlie Halleck I knew over those years I always recall in that context. That to me compensated for just about everything else that he might have done in opposition to us, which he did rather unsuccessfully anyway, so we were never embittered by it. And it was voted out in committee.

The bill was reported, and I say to this day that was the moment when you could say, "You're going to have enacted into law in this nation meaningful civil rights legislation. It's now unstoppable."

JFK Assassination

Roy Wilkins: Five days after President Kennedy was murdered, [Johnson] addressed a joint session of the Congress and he only asked for two measures. One was the pending tax bill and one was the civil rights law. The day after Thanksgiving he began his conferences on the civil rights bill with a conference with me.

. . .

We talked about the civil rights situation and the necessity for a law and Mr. Johnson's belief that such a law could be enacted if the people really wanted it. This was an echo of his Senate days—if the votes and support are there. He was asking us if we wanted it, if we would do the things required to be done to get it enacted. He said he could not enact it himself; he was the president of the United States; he would give it his blessing; he would aid it in any way in which he could lawfully under the constitution; but that he could not lobby for the bill; and nobody expected him to lobby for the bill; and he didn't think we expected him to lobby for the bill. But in effect he said—he didn't use these words—"You have the ball; now run with it." He gave unmistakable notice that you had a friend and not an enemy in the White House for this legislation.

Over it all hung the enormous tragedy of the killing of President Kennedy. And it was on this note that he felt the federal government had to take a stand to halt this schism between people—violence, bloodshed, and that sort of thing.

Whitney Young Jr.: The press got to me immediately after the assassination, and I remember my first comment when asked about how did I feel about Lyndon Johnson as the president. I said, "I had always felt that if ever I turned on the radio and heard the president of the United States speaking with a deep Southern accent that I would panic. But I do not feel that way at all."

In fact, I felt, by that time, that Lyndon Johnson would do exactly what he did, but the next day he did call me, and we talked at some length on the phone, and then two or three days later I met with him. He was not, at that point, trying to get unity as much as he was saying, "I need your help." And he was giving full recognition to the shock of the country and the possible anxiety people might have about a Southerner being president. He wanted very much to convey that not only did we not have to worry, but he wanted to do far more than any other president.

Bayard Rustin:

Were you one of the Negro leaders who was called by President Johnson shortly after the assassination?


What did he say on that occasion?

He explained that he needed our help, essentially what the whole thing was about, that he hoped that we would trust him, that he was deeply concerned to deal with these matters. Essentially he wanted two things before he left office: one was that there would be world peace everywhere; and that all men in the United States would have the rights and privileges and the responsibilities of citizenship.

Ramsey Clark: Well, we weren't making any real progress [on the 1963 legislation]. . . . I find it's very difficult to measure what the prospects for civil rights legislation are, but certainly our judgment at the time was one of pessimism that we would be able to get anything through. And then after the assassination, President Johnson's magnificent insistence on civil rights legislation and his very strong and powerful address to the Congress really gave it a lift. Somehow or other, before [the assassination] you weren't quite sure the nation thought this whole thing was respectable even, and after it became something of a crusade.

1964 Legislation in the House


Burke Marshall: I saw [President Johnson] at a meeting in the Cabinet room—he may have had the Negro leaders in or something or other. But in any event, he asked me to come see him in his office after the meeting was over and I did. That was not too long after the president was killed. He asked me how we were going to get the legislation through. Of course, I didn't have the foggiest idea how we were going to get it through the Senate, though I was sure, and I told him I was sure, we could get it through the House. But he was interested in the Senate.

I had been sure even since October that it was going to go through the House, because I was just sure we had—once we got it through in Judiciary Committee, and [William N.] McCulloch and [Gerald] Ford, and . . . Charlie Halleck—all of these [Republicans] were committed to it to President Kennedy. I just didn't see that they could go back on it because he was dead. In fact, they'd be less apt to. If the Republicans were that committed to it, I was just sure it would go through the House as it came out of the committee, and it did.

Lawrence F. O'Brien: In every case of legislative struggle, amendments which are adopted are inevitably bound to water down your proposal, and you fend them off to the best of your ability. The first one, for example, [which was offered by Richard] Poff of Virginia, was a teller vote to give defendants the same right as the Attorney General to request a three-judge federal court. How much of your ammunition are you going to use as you go through something like this? That was eliminated quickly. Teller vote and that's it.

Then whatever the [amendment] clarifying the definition of discrimination was, [offered by Charles] Goodell and [Edwin] Willis; we would think that the bill, as written, probably effectively defined discrimination, but then how many amendments are you talking about?

Then you notice Howard Smith's [amendment], which is an interesting one.  Prohibiting discrimination in employment due to sex. He was way before his time, wasn't he?

. . .

Howard Smith viewed that as an attempt to cause problems. He was not interested in eliminating sex discrimination. He thought this was pretty cute.

But it passed.

Yes. I think the important part of the House amendment listing is not so much the amendments which were adopted as the fact that ninety-four amendments were rejected.  When you add it all up, that wasn't a bad piece of business.

. . .

This is a good piece of work in terms of legislative progress. If you can get through anything as mammoth as civil rights legislation with a limited number of watered-down amendments, I'm sure at the end of those few days we were quite pleased.

. . .

But when everything is said and done, you think of where you started from; you had a battle on two fronts simultaneously. You had a battle with the conservatives on the committee, the southern Democrats, conservative Republicans, but you had just as tough a battle with the liberals. Their position was the old story of the half loaf or three-quarters of a loaf, and "we'll settle for nothing less." Their constituency consisted of civil rights groups you wouldn't expect to be patient. This was something long overdue; there should be no quarrels about it, there should be no maneuvering regarding it, and it should be flat out. That's not unusual, but in civil rights, it was the very strong, prevailing view. The liberals on the committee who opposed passage were reflecting the views of their constituency, and we had to cope with that. We shared their views, and we'd love to do it their way.

We were accused by some of being weak-kneed but, my God, are you going to have meaningful legislation, or are you going to sit around for another five or ten years while you play this game? We became, if anything, more disturbed with some of our liberal friends on that committee than we did with some of the southern Democrats and Republicans because, after all, we knew their position. Those liberals sat around saying, "No, we won't accept anything but the strongest possible civil rights bill, and we won't vote for anything less than that." To kill civil rights in that Judiciary Committee was an appalling possibility! And it was not only a possibility, it came darn close to an actuality.

. . .

There were elements in civil rights that just made it different. . . . If you're talking about Medicare, for example, a major legislative effort extending over years and years, it didn't get to the basic human terms of black folks and white folks. Civil rights is unique in that regard and, consequently, the emotions that it stirred were as intense as the emotions on any legislative proposal you could ever be involved with. You were going to break barriers that go back a hundred years or more. Whatever remaining partial barriers might exist after enactment, the situation was bound to improve once the base was in place.

. . .

House passage was the ultimate breakthrough, and that was really the last battle for the opponents of this legislation, even though it went through difficulty in the Senate.

1964 Legislation in the Senate

Lawrence F. O'Brien: The Senate of the United States could not ultimately be in a position of having defeated civil rights legislation, which had been adopted by the House. Republicans in the Senate, as Republicans in the House, would not be able to carry that burden. So the objective was obviously to carve it up, kick it around, present as many roadblocks as you could, although people participating in that exercise, in many instances, couldn't allow themselves to get out in front.

. . .

You were saying that there was building, during the Senate consideration of the bill, enthusiasm above what you had during the time that it was in the [House].

Yes. It grew rapidly in the church groups around the country. Disappointment in the House passage because of the content of the bill dissipated quickly, and we were able to finally bring into focus the realization that we were afforded a splendid opportunity to enact meaningful civil rights legislation. There was a tendency to refrain from criticizing the House action. If we move rapidly into the Senate, there would be final enactment. This wasn't planned or orchestrated; it just evolved.

The result was that the procedure was agreed to in the Senate to bypass the [Judiciary Committee] and go directly to the floor. If it went to the Senate committee, you may never see it again. The decision was made, which we discussed in great detail, and which was in accord with the leadership in the Senate. Coinciding with that, there then seemed to be a significant escalation in the private-sector involvement and enthusiasm and a great effort ensued. That effort hit the Senate and hit very strongly and was very important in accomplishing the desired result. I don't recall that degree of private-sector activity in the House when we were going through it.

Burke Marshall:

Did you have anything special to do with working in the Senate for passage?

I spoke to a lot of senators. I spent a lot of time with Senator [Everett] Dirksen at the end; I spent a lot of time with Senator [Hubert] Humphrey. There were a number of senators—Senator [Phillip] Hart and Senator [Edmund] Muskie; of course, Ted Kennedy; Senator [Birch] Bayh, and all of the Republicans. I met for hours with those—in Senator Dirksen's office going over that bill.

. . .

That was mainly drafting; that was drafting by that point to get Senator Dirksen. You never can tell how much you might overrate Senator Dirksen's influence; it obviously, on occasion, isn't as great as it is on other occasions. But our notion was, and I think it was probably correct, that we couldn't get cloture without the support of Senator Dirksen and the five or six or maybe ten senators that he could bring with him on cloture.

Do you recall what finally convinced those men?

I think it was a combination of things obviously, and different things convince different people. I don't know what convinced Senator Dirksen really; I suppose the presidential politics of 1964 were involved in it in some fashion. But I still believe that what convinced them was they thought there was a national need for it, that that was the single factor that convinced most of them.

Nicholas Katzenbach was the United States deputy attorney general from 1962–1965.
Nicholas Katzenbach:

Did Dirksen exact much of a price in fact for his support?  Did they change the bill importantly?

He didn't exact—the bill got completely rewritten with virtually no change of substance. . . . Just words, and Dirksen used that in various ways. McCulloch was satisfied that we'd kept our agreement.

In respect to that, again, I think that President Johnson really felt that we were nuts in trying to think that we could get cloture in the Senate on this. I had a long talk with him about it—told him we didn't have any choice, because we couldn't give away, in view of the commitment to McCulloch. We went over the votes, and he saw that at least I knew what I was talking about as far as the votes were concerned.

. . .

The president said that he just didn't see how you could get sixty-seven votes. We went through—we had fifty-eight—and we went through them, and he was fairly persuaded, and he said, "Now, where are you going to get the others?"

And I said, "Well, we've got to get nine of these fourteen to make it."

We went through them one by one, and I think I was a little more optimistic than he was, but I said to him "If you do anything publicly but indicate that we're going to get cloture on this bill, we can't possibly get cloture on this bill. And the only way we can get it is for you with your experience to express absolute confidence publicly and privately that we're going to get cloture on this bill," which was putting his neck right on the line.

And then he did that. I think it was basically the reason that we got it, because they all thought that he knew the Senate; of course, we worked like the dickens, and he worked personally very hard, on those thirteen or fourteen people, and actually, we could have gotten as many as seventy votes. We had two or three in our pocket that if it was the sixty-seventh vote, they'd vote that way.

You ultimately got what—sixty-eight?

We got sixty-eight or sixty-nine. We had a couple of more [votes if we had needed them].

Lawrence F. O'Brien:

Did the presiding officer in the Senate have some control over the filibuster at all? Was there a parliamentary way that he could break the filibuster unless it tracked strictly with the Senate procedures?

No, the Senate procedure is unlimited debate, and that's it. Unlimited debate leads you to exactly that. How long can you prolong the debate? The whole idea is to have unlimited debate until you exhaust everyone, and the whole thing dies, and everyone gives up. Once they were unable to move it to the Judiciary Committee, and they were faced on a roll call with the agreement of the Senate to take up the legislation, there was no alternative left for the opposition but filibuster, and the odds would heavily favor the opposition, historically. It's not an easy matter for the Senate to vote to suspend its own rules and close out debate.

So it was of great historic interest that this debate ensued in the context of civil rights. It added a dimension to the struggle. But it was an inevitable procedure. When everything was said and done, no matter how you tried to maneuver or manipulate, you were faced with one of two things. If you took the normal course and went to the Judiciary Committee, you probably were never going to see a bill. If you're going directly to the floor, then the battle is to be waged. "The bill is taken up, and now filibuster ensues." Once you got to that, were you capable of putting together the necessary votes to break a filibuster?

. . .

When the cloture petition was filed, it was after seven weeks of debate, and then you're at "This is it!"

Why wasn't it filed sooner?

There's no perfect time, but you have to build a record that there was full debate opportunity, that everyone had all the opportunity that reasonably could be expected to debate this issue. You wouldn't move for cloture and want to be faced with, "I might vote for cloture, but I think this is a hastily taken act. We haven't had enough opportunity for discussion, and this is an arbitrary effort to close off fair and reasonable discussion of the issues involved here." There's a possibility of success when you say, "All right, you've been at it for seven weeks. There's no indication that any meaningful vote is going to take place here, so we're petitioning."

. . .

Each senator voting on cloture had to have some justification. The justification was in two parts: one was an overwhelming, overriding public demand for action; two, there had been ample opportunity for full discussion. So when that kind of a petition is acted upon, there's the order of business. You have a June 8 filing of the cloture petition, and June 10, the vote.

Can you describe the atmosphere when the bill passed the Senate?

Yes. It was like the home team winning the Super Bowl. There were many expressions of enthusiasm, joy, and handshaking and backslapping.

. . .

It just spread around the Hill. In fact, the people who were in the chamber, outside the chamber, and in the general vicinity during that time were numerous. You wouldn't be able to accommodate them in any one location. . . . [Johnson] was ecstatic. . . . There were two aspects to his reaction; he was ecstatic and relieved. It had been a long, long, tough grind, and his enthusiasm knew no bounds.

Ramsey Clark: [In 1964] of course, July 2, we got the Civil Rights Act, and there was a glorious feeling about it, there really was. It just seemed like there was immense generosity in the American people and good will and they were going to do something about this great wrong. The president made what I consider his finest civil rights speech at Howard University, and there was a buoyant atmosphere, and as soon as we got through with that bill, we were beginning to look for something next because, you know, we felt a sweep, and we felt a power for more action.

LBJ's Legacy

Lawrence F. O'Brien: There was nobody more ardent in his espousal of civil rights legislation than Lyndon B. Johnson, and nobody can take that away from him. From my own personal observations—I was there—we weren't sitting there enthusiastically accommodating some of these various elements in order to get a majority all through both bodies. We were doing the best we could, and we were dedicated. There had to be a tremendous amount of pride from all concerned with the ultimate result.

Bayard Rustin: I'm happy to say that, as far as I'm concerned, I believe that President Johnson will go down in history as having done more for civil rights than any single president who ever lived—and more for civil rights, not only in terms of civil rights, but that his education bill, which has now made it possible for us to almost double the black students in colleges. We have more black students in colleges than we had anticipated would be there by 1975 as a result of President Johnson's education bill.

Roy Wilkins: I just believe that Mr. Johnson will go down in our history, fifty years from now, even now, as the man who when he got in the most powerful spot in the nation—and some say in the world, but we're interested in the nation—when he got there, he committed the White House and the administration to the involvement of government in getting rid of the inequalities between people solely on the basis of face. And he did this to a greater extent than any other president in our history. It will take many, many presidents to match what Lyndon Johnson did.

Whitney Young Jr.: Mr. Johnson brought this quality of emotion to the problem of race relations and was able to translate it to the group situation. I think this is responsible for his success and developed some real conviction and real sincerity. I now begin to feel that President Johnson has always been a liberal, but he was also a politician, and he had to be elected from Texas. But the moment he was placed in the position of being president of all the people, I don't know anybody who exhibited a greater respect for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as far as black people are concerned than did President Johnson.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with civil rights leaders in the Oval Office on January 18, 1964. From left to right: Roy Wilkins, James L. Farmer Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
Attorney General Ramsey Clark (left) and President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 1, 1967. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
James Meredith flanked by U.S. Marshal James McShane (left) and John Doar of the Justice Department as he prepares to attend his first class at the University of Mississippi, October 1, 1962. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Federal enforcement stopping a car at a checkpoint at the main gate to the University of Mississippi,  October 3, 1962. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Federal enforcement camp on a field across from Baxter Hall, where James Meredith lived at the University of Mississippi, October 4, 1962. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Burke Marshall in the Cabinet Room of the White House, February 28, 1967. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
Wreckage of a bomb explosion near the A. G. Gaston Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were staying during their Birmingham campaign, May 14, 1963. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
A page from President John F. Kennedy's notes on the situation in Birmingham, Alabama, May 12, 1963. Papers of John F. Kennedy: President's Office Files, 01/20/1691–11/22/1963. National Archives and Records Administration.
Bayard Rustin at a news briefing regarding the March on Washington, August 27, 1963. Photo by Warren K. Leffler. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
A. Philip Randolph, 1963. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Louis Martin (right) with Lyndon B. Johnson, May 19, 1966. From LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
Photograph of civil rights leaders at the head of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900–2003. National Archives and Records Administration.
Whitney Young Jr. at a civil rights meeting in the Oval Office, January, 18, 1964. From LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
A crowd gathers behind a fence at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. African American policemen from along the east coast came to assist with crowd control. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Marchers gather around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, August 28, 1963. Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900-2003. National Archives and Records Administration.
Roy Wilkins (right) with actor and performer Sammy Davis Jr. and an unnamed reporter at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900-2003. National Archives and Records Administration.
A. Philip Randolph, Clarence Mitchell, and Walter Reuther in the Capitol during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House after the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Photo by Warren K. Leffler. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
George Reedy, July 8, 1965. LBJ Library photo.
Lawrence F. O'Brien, June 23, 1961. Photo by Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Memorandum from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to President Kennedy on the status of the civil rights bill in Congress, October 23, 1963. Papers of John F. Kennedy: President's Office Files, 01/20/1961–11/22/1963.
In 1961, House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck (R-IN) (left) and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) began holding weekly press conferences, which came to be known as the “Ev and Charlie Show." U.S. Senate Historical Office.
Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as president on Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas on November 22, 1963. From left to right: Mac Kilduff, Judge Sarah T. Hughes, Gen. Clifton, Jack Valenti, Chief Curry, Lady Bird Johnson, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Evelyn Lincoln, Mary Gallagher, Cong. Homer Thornberry, Chuck Roberts, Lem Johns, and Cong. Jack Brooks. LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton.
President Lyndon B. Johnson on the telephone in the Oval Office, November 29, 1963. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
Martin Luther King Jr. meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson on December 3, 1963. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with civil rights leaders, January 18, 1964. From left to right: Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson, Whitney Young Jr., and James Farmer. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
The engrossing copy of H.R. 7152, the Civil Rights Act, showing the final text of the bill as passed by the House of Representatives. It shows several amendments to the bill, including one, proposed by Representative Howard Smith of Virginia, that added gender to the categories of which the bill prohibited discrimination. Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1789–2011. National Archives and Records Administration.
"Roll call 32" vote in the House of Representatives on H.R. 7152, the Civil Rights Act. On February 10, 1964, the House passed the civil rights bill 290 to 130. Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1789–2011. National Archives and Records Administration.
Summit Conference on Civil Rights in May 1964. From left to right: Bayard Rustin, Jack Greenberg, Whitney Young Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and A. Philip Randolph. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Republican senators during a meeting on amendments to the Civil Rights Act, May 20, 1964. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Senator Everett Dirksen with President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964. Image courtesy The Dirksen Congressional Center.

Everett McKinley Dirksen, "That Was The Year That Was"

On June 15, 1964, Senator Everett Dirksen delivered the following remarks about his year working on civil rights legislation in a segment titled "That Was the Year That Was" as part of his weekly series, “Your Senator Reports.” The transcript of this broadcast is courtesy The Dirksen Congressional Center

In a way, I sort of pilfer the subject for today. Perhaps paraphrase would be a better word, but as was announced, I want to visit with you a little on "that was the year that was." Now you have seen that popular and highly diverting program, That Was the Week That Was. But I want to talk about "that was the year that was," and this will probably be the last of my observations on this general subject of civil rights. So let's go back to June 1963. That was a year ago. To be exact, on the 5th of June and also on the 4th, my party, the Republican Party, held a conference for the purpose of considering a little statement of principles with respect to civil rights. I wrote out what I thought was a good statement. Then we had two sessions, and, of course, they began to take out a word, take out a phrase, and then they put it back. This continued for two whole days. But when we got through, virtually all the words were put back, and all of the phrases were put back so that as I wrote it one night on my own portable typewriter, it stood up pretty well. That was a year ago this month. More»

Swearing in of Nicholas Katzenbach as Under Secretary of State, October 3, 1966. LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe.
First page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. General Records of the U.S. Government. National Archives and Records Administration.
President Lyndon B. Johnson speaks to the nation before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the East Room of the White House, July 2, 1964. LBJ Library photo by O. J. Rapp.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on, July 2, 1964. LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton.
The last page of the Civil Rights Act with the signature of President Lyndon B. Johnson was on display in the White House for a reception commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act on July 1, 2004. White House photo by Paul Morse.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, date unknown. LBJ Library photo by Frank Muto.