Bo Statham: Civil Rights Act changed the fabric of our country

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The enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a momentous event. More than any other law or court decision, it ended lawful segregation.

The act provided that “all persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment” of any place of public accommodation without discrimination or segregation on the “ground of race, color, religion or national origin.” (There also are provisions relating to voting rights and equal employment opportunity.)

Especially in the South, African-Americans for the first time in the history of this country had the legal right to equal service in hotels, restaurants, theaters, swimming pools and every other place of public accommodation where whites enjoyed services and benefits.

Rooted in slavery and rigidly segregated, the Mississippi I grew up in was living under Jim Crow laws initiated after the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. Black people, as a class, were inferior by law more than seventy-five years after slavery was abolished. The Civil Rights Act began to end that cruel injustice.

In 1964, I was legislative assistant to John C. Stennis, a powerful member of the U.S. Senate from Mississippi and a steadfast leader of Southern opposition to the bill, which was proposed by President John Kennedy in 1963 shortly before his assassination.

Those were the days when a filibuster was a filibuster: opponents could not just threaten unending debate on a measure but had to take the floor and talk nonstop, refusing to yield except for questions. Under the rules then in effect, 67 votes were required to invoke cloture and stop debate.

Enough senators who supported the civil rights bill nevertheless joined the Southerners in voting against cloture.

There was no way I could even talk to Sen. Stennis, otherwise a good and moral person, about not participating in the filibuster, much less supporting the bill. He was seeking re-election in 1964.

The debate lasted 60 days, including seven Saturdays. Opponents talked nonstop, twenty-four/seven, mostly to one another. Cots were set up in the Democratic cloakroom and halls around the Senate chamber. Legislative assistants, like me, had to be on the floor and provide their senators with speeches and supporting materials to last several hours until yielding to a like-minded colleague for his turn.

Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) managed the bill and after many hours of negotiations persuaded Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois), the minority leader, to bring enough Republicans along to stop the filibuster. But, in fact, the bill would not have moved without the pressure of President Johnson, the legendary master of the Senate. It was the first time in history cloture had been invoked on a civil rights bill.

The Civil Rights Act brought many changes in the South and other parts of the country. “Whites Only” and “Coloreds Not Served” signs disappeared, and African-Americans now enjoy equal access to and service in public accommodations, mostly with dignity.

A law may not be able to change deeply held beliefs, but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 replaced particularly odious discrimination with long-denied justice.


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