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Civil Rights Act of 1964

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Civil Rights Act of 1964

By the summer of 1963, after a series of violent demonstrations in the South, particularly in Birmingham, Alabama, President Kennedy pushed for a very strong civil rights bill through Congress. The first of its kind since the Civil War, this bill drastically called for the end of all segregation in all public places. In the eyes of the civil rights movement leaders, this bill was long over due. Kennedy began by sending the United States Congress a "Special Message on Civil Rights," stating, "Our Constitution is color blind, but the practices of the country do not always conform to the principles of the Constitution. Equality before the law has not always meant equal treatment and opportunity. The harmful, wasteful and wrongful results of racial discrimination and segregation still appear in virtually every aspect of national life, in virtually every part of the nation". Kennedy received praise for his strong and moving words yet was criticized for his weak legislative proposals to remedy the situation. Dr. Martin Luther King began massive protests in the street of Birmingham. To combat these protests, Police Commissioner Bull Conner used any means, including dogs, fire hoses, and electric cattle-prods on the protestors. Making newspapers and television everywhere, the Birmingham atrocity along with Dr. Martin Luther King's famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, ignited the moral conscious of Americans nationwide. While Conner earned a negative reputation, President Kennedy wisely commented, "Bull Connor has done more for civil rights than anyone else. The civil rights movement should thank God for him. He has helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln". The apparent Birmingham defeat for Dr. Martin Luther King in reality was the key point in which the battle to win civil rights became a national fight with the President as one of its strongest allies.

Before the Birmingham situation, Kennedy kept a fragile balance with the civil rights activists and the Southern Democrats. While in office, Congress consisted of a great number of Southern Democrats with some liberal Northerners. Kennedy needed the support of these Southern Democrats. To add to this complicated situation, Kennedy knew that while the Southern Democrats would not support civil rights proposals directly, his economic plans, including aid to education and raising the minimum wage, if approved, would benefit the black population. Kennedy also needed the Southern Democrats support in the upcoming 1964 presidential election to secure re-election. Any aggravation to this party would only guarantee a loss for Kennedy.

Motivated by the Birmingham situation, by the summer of 1963 Kennedy could no longer appease the Southern Democrats by ignoring the civil rights legislation. Despite the fact that his actions could endanger his chances for re-election, he saw beyond politics and into the moral issues. With public support, Kennedy was willing to wage in the political war. Kennedy and Johnson both were very aware of the walls that Congress would build to stop any proposals in favor of the civil rights movement.

Together Kennedy, Johnson, and the civil rights leaders combined efforts to achieve results. By May 31, 1963, Kennedy announced his plans for the civil rights movements to the public. First hand attempts to maintain segregation by the outspoken racist Governor George Wallace of Alabama provided Kennedy with the ideal timing to deliver his message.

Before even outlining the details of his new proposal he told the nation, "100 years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free, and this nation, for all it hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizen are free. Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, 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".

Immediately thereafter, he and Johnson headed meetings to outline the plans. The Leadership Conference of Civil Rights consisting of fifty or so civil rights organizations which had previously been established after Kennedy's initial proposals called for a meeting on July 2nd inviting its participating members but also extended invitation to an additional fifty religious groups and other possible helpful groups. The organization finally felt confident in fighting for this bill with determination to overrun possible roadblocks by mobilizing the nation behind the bill.

The Leadership Conference dedicated their goals to achieving a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), a provision called Part III, named after the third proposed Eisenhower administration civil rights bill, and eliminating segregation in all accommodations. The FEPC would consist of enforcing employment equality and fairness while the Part III would allow the United States attorney general to file civil rights suits, thereby relieving individuals of filing a suit which could cause dangerous retaliations. Knowing the approval of this proposal would be hard to attain the Leadership Conference strove for all, while accepting that concessions would most likely have to be made.

Still attempting to mobilize the public and get the bill some attention, the civil rights activists continued to demonstrate. The "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, had over 200,000 participants and proved those who feared violence wrong. The protest continued with peace while the crowd repeated, "Pass the Bill". Despite the success of the protest in Washington D.C., the Leadership Conference was having a hard time getting the proposed bill past the House Judiciary Committee.

The Bill needed to be tailored to get the future approval of both the Republican and Democratic civil rights supporters, enough to overrule the perceived resistant Senate by 2/3's vote if necessary. Finally after a plea to the House Judiciary Committee by Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, a bill hoping to please all parties moved to the House of Representatives. However when it appeared that the bill was finally making some headway, the unthinkable happened, President Kennedy was assassinated.

Many civil rights leaders feared that Johnson, originally from the South, would not push for the bill as Kennedy had. However, Johnson surprised many when he pushed for the bill as before. In his first address to Congress after Kennedy's death, Johnson stated, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long". By

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