WASHINGTON – On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most significant civil rights achievements in U.S. history. This new law made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; It ended school, work and public facility discrimination, and barred unequal application of voter registration requirements.
Five hours after Congress approved the law, Johnson signed it, then turned and handed pens to various key figures in getting the legislation passed, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He went on to address the country in a nationally televised address, saying the law was a challenge for the United States to "eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country."
In observing the law's 50th anniversary Wednesday, President Barack Obama said "few pieces of legislation have defined our national identity as distinctly, or as powerfully."
"It transformed the concepts of justice, equality, and democracy for generations to come," Obama said.
Here are five things to know about the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not the first attempt by Congress to pass sweeping legislation aimed at ending discrimination.
According to Congresslink.org, legislation failed in the House and Senate every year from 1945 until 1957, when Congress passed, and President Dwight Eisenhower signed, a law allowing federal prosecutors to seek court injunctions to stop voting rights interference. That law, the Civil Rights Act of 1957, also created the Justice Department's civil rights section, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, then a Democrat, filibustered the bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the longest one-man filibuster on record.
That law was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which introduced penalties for obstructing or attempting to obstruct someone's attempt to register to vote or actually vote, and for obstructing federal court orders in school discrimination cases.
President John F. Kennedy first suggested the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a televised speech from the Oval Office. He said he would ask Congress "to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law." Kennedy was assassinated before the bill could become law.
Johnson, in addressing a joint session of Congress on Nov. 27, 1963, said "no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory" than passing the civil rights bill.
WOMEN TOO ...
Rep. Howard Smith, D-Va., chairman of the House Rules Committee, advocated adding the word "sex" behind "religion" to the original bill to address gender equality. "I do not think it can do any harm to this legislation; maybe it can do some good," he said. Some suggested that Smith, a segregationist Democrat, was actually attempting to kill the bill; He said his intention was to ensure white women got the same protection.
Segregationists and conservative Democrats supported Smith's amendment. Northern Republicans – who supported the bill – opposed the amendment out of fear that it could kill the entire bill. One woman lawmaker, Rep. Edith Green, D-Ore., agreed, saying it was more important to secure rights for blacks first.
"For every discrimination that has been made against a woman in this country, there has been ten times as much discrimination against the Negro," Green said.
Rep. Martha Griffiths, D-Mich., opposed efforts to take women out. "A vote against this amendment today by a white man is a vote against his wife, or his widow, or his daughter or his sister," she said.
The House approved the amendment.
MARTIN and MALCOLM
Because of the Civil Rights Act, two civil rights activists with very different approaches, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, had their first and only face-to-face encounter. On March 26, 1964, King and Malcolm X were both in Washington for the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. According to Peter Louis Goldman, author of a book about Malcolm X, said the Muslim activist slipped into the back row of one of King's news conferences. When King left by one door, Malcolm X left by another and intercepted him.
"Well, Malcolm, good to see you," King said.
"Good to see you," Malcolm X replied.
They were photographed smiling warmly and shaking hands. As they parted, Goldman said, Malcolm X remarked jokingly: "Now you're going to get investigated."
In his autobiography, King said of the encounter: "Circumstances didn't enable me to talk with him for more than a minute."
SINCE THE LAW ...
Congress followed up with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned the use of literacy tests, added federal oversight for minority voters and allowed federal prosecutors to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. The law was prompted in part by the "Bloody Sunday" attack by police on marchers crossing a Selma, Alabama, bridge that year.
That same year, Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which bans government contractors from discriminating in employment decisions, and requires them to "take affirmative action" to ensure that employees are treated without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, created as a result of the 1964 law, came into being in 1965 to enforce federal laws making it illegal to discriminate at work. Most employers with at least 15 workers are covered by the EEOC.
Seven days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which provided equal housing opportunities regardless of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin.
On the Net:
—The Civil Rights Act of 1964: http://research.archives.gov/description/299891
—Civil Rights Legislation: http://civilrights.lbjlibrary.org/
—Senate history of the Civil Rights Act: http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/CivilRightsAct1964.htm
House history of the Civil Rights Act: