Freedom Riders reunited at the Department of Education in Washington to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After a ceremony they boarded buses for a trip to the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.
It was only 55 years ago that Congress — along with the rest of the U.S. — was still arguing about whether people could be barred from swimming pools, hotels, universities and more based on the color of their skin.
White supremacy was enshrined in law, but that system took a major blow on June 9, 1964, when a Delaware vote in the Senate shattered the opposition to the Civil Rights Act.
Why it mattered
The battle over civil rights was in full swing in 1964. Racism was endemic in the entire country, but for a century, blacks in the South had faced special discrimination, with laws banning people of European and African descent from mixing, whether in marriage, social life, housing or travel. It was an entire code of life based on perceptions of “black” and “white.”
The civil rights movement didn’t spring out of nowhere. African Americans had long fought against the lynchings, hatred and discrimination. But with outrage sparked by incidents like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the movement finally began to get more attention.
And Southern segregationists dug in for a fight.
The Civil Rights Act
Championed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 1964 civil rights bill required businesses to serve everyone, regardless of race, skin color, religion, or national origin. It barred employers from discriminating in hiring or pay. It also let the government withhold federal money to enforce the bill and intervene in discrimination cases.
The act also tried to end the Southern practice of using ploys to deny blacks the right to vote.
Southern lawmakers launched a filibuster to keep the bill from even coming up for a vote in the Senate, and proponents had to come up with a two-thirds majority to end the filibuster.
It wasn’t at all clear they’d be able to do that. The bill would probably have failed without Johnson’s dedicated behind-the-scenes work rounding up the needed votes, aided by Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen, as Doris Kearns Goodwin details in her book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times.” Until then, Goodwin noted, segregationists had been very successful for years at keeping civil rights legislation from coming up for a vote.
Southerners filibustered for a record 75 days, capped off by an overnight marathon by Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, starting June 8.
On the morning of June 9, 1964, the Senate finally voted on whether to end the filibuster and allow a vote. To do so, proponents needed 67 votes. They got No. 67 from Delaware Sen. John J. Williams (who now has a highway named after him). Williams’ vote prompted “an audible sigh of ‘That’s it'” in the Senate galleries, the Associated Press reported, trumpeting the vote as “a history-shattering move.”
The final vote tally came to 71 to end the filibuster, only four votes more than the minimum. So while Williams’ historic vote was a coincidence, not the deciding factor, his support was still key.
Delaware’s other senator, J. Caleb Boggs, who would one day lose his seat to Joe Biden, also voted to end the filibuster. Both senators then voted on June 19 to pass the act, which Johnson signed on July 2.
The battle for civil rights was far from over — and many argue it’s not over yet. The very next year, civil rights marchers on their way to Montgomery, Alabama, would be set upon by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Media coverage of the attack shocked the nation.
A few years later, in 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, setting off waves of uprisings, including in Wilmington.
But the Civil Rights Act was a major change in policy, and Delaware’s lawmakers played an important part in bringing it about.
Fifty years later, the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, reflected on the bill’s impact in an anniversary event.
Obama said he had “lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts … That’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”
Information from the Associated Press/News Journal archives contributed to this report.
Contact Andrew Sharp at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @buckeye_201.