Friday, June 19, 2009

Day 127/365 Civil Rights Amidst Uncivil Unrest

Photograph by Cecil Stoughton Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Record Administration, LBJ Library #276-10-64

As someone who grew up in the South of the mid-1950's through to the mid-1960's, today marks a major anniversary.

On June 19, 1964, the United States Senate passed the Civil Rights Bill - but only after 83 days of filibuster by die-hard Republicans and some deep-south Democrats.

This piece of legislation that struck so much fear into the hearts of southern white folks simply states that every person must have equal access to public places and there would no longer be any discrimination in employment.

That's it.

But the effects were enormous:

No more segregated hotels, restaurants, buses, trains if they engaged in interstate commerce (think Holiday Inn, MacDonald's, Greyhound, Amtrak).

State and federal governments could no longer deny access to public facilities on grounds of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity. (Think sporting events, holiday events like firework displays, park facilities, public swimming beaches).

Barred any discrimination by any agency receiving federal funds (think colleges, universities or research facilities).

Prohibited discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, as well as discrimination against an individual because of his or her association with another individual of a particular race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. An employer could no longer discriminate against a person because of his interracial association with another, such as by an interracial marriage.

And finally, this legislation authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file suits to enforce school desegregation, and encouraged him to do so as quickly as possible.

All this, with one stroke of a pen.

On July 2nd, Lyndon Baines Johnson (forever affectionately known as LBJ) sat down in front of Rev. Martin Luther King,Jr., and used several pens to sign the bill.

Although the Civil Rights bill had been conceived and pushed towards Congress by his predecessor, President Kennedy, LBJ did little to acknowledge that. Instead, in a somewhat
petty action, he handed a handful of pens to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and told him to hand them out. Although Bobby Kennedy played a crucial part in the passage, LBJ mostly ignored him during the signing, and did not invite Kennedy up to the desk to stand with the group during signing.

Afterwards (in his own personal act of defiance), Bobby had one of the pens framed with a note that said "Pen used to sign President Kennedy's civil rights bill".

For his part, after the signing, LBJ said to a bystander: "We just handed away the South for the next 50 years."

He was right.

This would be the beginning of the Republican Party and religious fundamentalism sweeping the South, cancelling years of faithful Democrat voting.*

*Not in our Virginia family. My grandmother would "die and go to hell" before she'd vote for a Republican. She figured if civil rights was good enough for LBJ, it was good enough for her.**

**I have inherited a great many of my grandmother's genetic code, including the Democrat gene.

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