Republican Roots of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Aug 2011
Republican Roots of the 1964 Civil Rights Act
by Michael Zak

Rand Paul?s controversial remarks about the 1964 Civil Rights Act illustrate what I have been saying for years, that Republicans would benefit tremendously from knowing and appreciating the heritage of our Grand Old Party. That landmark legislation was the culmination of a century of efforts by Republicans to protect African-Americans from their Democrat oppressors. Let?s look at the facts.

On his deathbed in 1874, Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) told a Republican colleague: ?You must take care of the civil rights bill ? my bill, the civil rights bill. Don?t let it fail.? In March 1875, the Republican-controlled 43rd Congress followed up the GOP?s 1866 Civil Rights Act and 1871 Civil Rights Act with the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever. A Republican president, Ulysses Grant, signed the bill into law that same day.

Among its provisions, the 1875 Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Sound familiar? Though struck down by the Supreme Court eight years later, the 1875 Civil Rights Act would be reborn as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

During the twenty years of the FDR and Truman administrations, the Democrats had refused to enact any civil rights legislation. In contrast, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which had been written by his Attorney General, a former Chairman of the Republican National Committee. The original draft would have permitted the federal government to sue anyone violating another person?s constitutional rights, but this powerful provision would have to wait until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The bill had to be weakened considerably to secure enough Democrat votes to pass, so violations would be civil, not criminal offenses, and penalties were light. Vice President Richard Nixon helped overcome a Democrat filibuster in the Senate. The GOP then strengthened enforcement with its 1960 Civil Rights Act.

Clever strategizing had won him the support of most African-American voters, but it took President John Kennedy (D-MA) nearly two years to make good on even one of his promises to them. He refused to attend a dinner commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and turned down Martin Luther King?s invitation to speak at the March on Washington. He did name Thurgood Marshall to the federal bench, but that was to an appeals court in New York, far from the fray in southern states. Kennedy did not honor his campaign promise to submit to Congress a new civil rights bill soon after taking office.

While the Kennedy administration was ignoring its campaign pledges, the Republican minority in Congress introduced several bills to protect the constitutional rights of African-Americans. In January 1963, congressional Republicans introduced a sweeping civil rights bill to enact what Democrat opposition had prevented from being included in the 1957 and 1960 laws. Threatened by this initiative, the president finally acted. Hastily drafted in a single one-nighter, the Kennedy bill fell well short of what the GOP had introduced the month before. Many Democrats were preparing a protracted Senate filibuster of this civil rights bill, which was in a committee of the House of Representatives when John Kennedy was murdered in November 1963.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was an update of Charles Sumner?s 1875 Civil Rights Act. In striking down that law in 1883, the Supreme Court had ruled that the 14th Amendment was insufficient constitutional authorization, so the 1964 Civil Rights Act had to be written in such a way as to rely on the interstate commerce clause for its constitutional underpinning. The 1964 Act guaranteed equal access to public facilities and banned racial discrimination by any entity receiving federal funding, thereby extending coverage to most every hospital, school and government contractor. Also banned was racial discrimination in unions and in companies with more than twenty-five employees. Enforcement provisions were much more rigorous than those of the 1957 and 1960 Acts.

Republicans supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act much more than did the Democrats. Contrary to Democrat myth, Everett Dirksen (R-IL), the Senate Minority Leader ? not President Lyndon Johnson ? was the person most responsible for its passage. Mindful of how Democrat opposition had forced Republicans to weaken their 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, President Johnson promised Republicans that he would publicly credit the GOP for its strong support. Johnson played no role in the legislative fight. In the House of Representatives, the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed with 80% support from Republicans but only 63% support from Democrats.

In the Senate, Dirksen had no trouble rounding up the votes of most Republicans, and former presidential candidate Richard Nixon lobbied hard for passage. On the Democrat side, the Senate leadership did support the bill, while the chief opponents were Senators Sam Ervin (D-NC), Al Gore (D-TN) and Robert Byrd (D-WV). Senator Byrd, whom Democrats still call ?the conscience of the Senate,? filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act for fourteen straight hours. At a meeting held in his office, Dirksen modified the bill so it could be passed despite Democrat opposition. He strongly condemned the Democrat-led 57-day filibuster: ?The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied. It is here!?

Along with most other political leaders at the time, Johnson, credited Dirksen for getting the bill passed: ?The Attorney General said that you were very helpful and did an excellent job? I?ll see that you get proper attention and credit.? At the time, for instance, The Chicago Defender, a renowned African-American newspaper, praised Senator Dirksen for leading passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The struggle for civil rights was not finished, however, as most southern states remained under the control of segregationist Democrat governors, such as George Wallace (D-AL), Orval Faubus (D-AR) and Lester Maddox (D-GA). Full enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would not arrive until the Republican political ascendancy in the South during the 1980s.

To quote from Back to Basics for the Republican Party, ?The more we Republicans know about the history of our party, the more the Democrats will worry about the future of theirs.? See for more information.
Jul 2009
Opa Locka
Ya bu back then you guys were leftists. The 1st Repub President was a socialist and the rednecks started out as a worker uprising.
Jul 2009
Opa Locka
Excellent reply.

LOL <<rolls eyes>>

The first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln. You got a problem with Lincoln?
Doesn't every Southerner? And he was a socialist, you should read up on some of what he had to say on labor, capital and revolution prior to being corrupted by power.

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