Spotlight: Passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 

This week, sixty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act, signed into law on July 2, is the nation’s benchmark civil rights legislation and remains one of America’s most significant legislative achievements. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The act also prohibits employment discrimination, unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools, public accommodations, and federally funded programs.

The signing ceremony was held in the East Room of the White House and nationally televised. In attendance were several male members of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s who organized and fought to see any significant changes toward equal protection under the law. Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney M. Young Jr.A. Philip Randolph, and Congressional leaders Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey are all seen in the following Universal Newsreel release receiving pens used in the bill’s signing. In total, over 75 pens were distributed to those who supported the bill. 

The decades-long fight for federal protections combating “Jim Crow” laws gained momentum in early 1963 after increased resistance to desegregation and the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. As a result of increased pressure from the movement, President Kennedy proposed the federal legislation in June of 1963. A filibuster in the Senate initially opposed the bill, but after Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, President Johnson continued to push for passage of the bill. In February of 1964, the House of Representatives passed the bill. Then, in June 1964, after a 72-day filibuster, the longest continuous debate in Senate history, the bill passed in the United States Senate. The final vote to pass the Civil Rights Act was 290–130 in the House of Representatives and 73–27 in the Senate. 

Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for state and local governments to implement “Jim Crow” laws enforcing racial segregation. The ability for state and local governments to legally develop and implement racial segregation had been in effect since 1896 when the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation purported to be “separate but equal” was constitutional. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signing ceremony.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 paved the way for additional laws prohibiting discrimination, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which bans literacy tests and other discriminatory voting practices; the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of property, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, forbidding discrimination against people with disabilities in federal employment, federal contractor employment, and programs that receive federal financial assistance.

While signing the bill into law, President Johnson called on all Americans to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he called “a turning point in history.” He stated, “This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to work in our communities and our States, in our homes, and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.” 

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

President Johnson’s remarks made during the signing of the Civil Rights bill can be read in full online thanks to the American Presidency Project. To learn more about NARA’s holdings documenting the Civil Rights Movement, please visit Research Our Records on the National Archives website or Special Media Records in our online catalog. Additional blog posts discussing Civil Rights can be found on The Unwritten Record

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