Celebrating Democratic Party History: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964

The act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin and gave the federal courts jurisdiction over enforcement, taking it out of the state courts where justice was uneven at best.

The Civil Rights Act had political ramifications as well. Its adoption caused a mass exodus of angry racists from the Democratic Party in the old south to the Republican Party. And the politics born of hatred of The Other gave the not-so-Grand Old Party the presidency for 28 out of the next 40 years.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Remarks Upon Signing the Civil Rights Act July 2, 1964

I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American.

One hundred and eighty-eight years ago this week a small band of valiant men began a long struggle for freedom. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor not only to found a nation, but to forge an ideal of freedom–not only for political independence, but for personal liberty–not only to eliminate foreign rule, but to establish the rule of justice in the affairs of men.

That struggle was a turning point in our history. Today in far corners of distant continents, the ideals of those American patriots still shape the struggles of men who hunger for freedom.

This is a proud triumph. Yet those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning. From the minutemen at Concord to the soldiers in Viet-Nam, each generation has been equal to that trust.

Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.

We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.

We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.

We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings–not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.

The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand–without rancor or hatred–how this all happened.

But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it. […]

The purpose of the law is simple.

It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others.

It does not give special treatment to any citizen.

It does say the only limit to a man’s hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability.

It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public. […]

We must not approach the observance and enforcement of this law in a vengeful spirit. Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions–divisions which have all lasted too long. Its purpose is national, not regional.

Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity. […]

My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail.

Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this Nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all.

Source: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-64. Volume II, entry 446, pp. 842-844. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1965.

Here are the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

Title I – Barred unequal application of voter registration requirements.
Title II – Outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce.
Title III – Prohibited state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on grounds of race, color, religion or national origin.
Title IV – Encouraged the desegregation of public schools and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file suits to enforce said act.
Title V – Expanded the Civil Rights Commission established by the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1957 with additional powers, rules and procedures.
Title VI – Prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds.
Title VII – Prohibits discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and also prohibits discrimination against an individual because of his or her association with another individual of a particular race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Title VIII – Required compilation of voter-registration and voting data in geographic areas specified by the Commission on Civil Rights.
Title IX – Made it easier to move civil rights cases from state courts with segregationist judges and all-white juries to federal court.

And what about those political ramifications? Here is a breakdown of the votes:

The original House version:

Southern Democrats: 7–87 (7–93%)
Southern Republicans: 0–10 (0–100%)

Northern Democrats: 145–9 (94–6%)
Northern Republicans: 138–24 (85–15%)

The Senate version:

Southern Democrats: 1–20 (5–95%)
Southern Republicans: 0–1 (0–100%)
Northern Democrats: 45–1 (98–2%)
Northern Republicans: 27–5 (84–16%)

Southern Democrats (soon to become Republicans) – 7 in the House and 1 in the Senate. Northern Republicans (today known as “Sen. Susan Collins of Maine”) – 138 in the House and 27 in the Senate.

The party of the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln, rejected by those filled with bitterness over the Civil War, became filled with those bitter over the civil rights of people of color after this bill was signed. The party of the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln implemented the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon and followed the dog whistle of States Rights from Ronald Reagan and became powerful enough to infuse their politics of hatred and bigotry into the presidency, the Congress and the federal judiciary for the past 50 years.

What President Johnson did was the right thing and the moral thing to do. But now we need to undo the terrible political injustice that resulted from that courageous action. We need to convince the electorate once and for all that the bitter politics of hate runs counter to that which defines us as Americans: a belief that we all deserve an opportunity to succeed regardless of the circumstances of our birth.

The American dream is for all Americans. And there is only one major political party that believes this to be true: the Democratic Party.

A long history of leaders with the courage of their convictions despite the certain knowledge that the decision will have political consequences … another reason I Vote For Democrats and why you should too.


Epilogue: In 2012, Americans re-elected President Barack Obama. He became the first president since 1984 to win a majority of the popular vote two elections in a row. In 2016 we lost the presidency to the party that ran on the white hot anger at the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the nation’s first black president.

In 2018, the electoral stakes could not be higher. Democrats must take back Congress to build a firewall against the damage being done by the Republicans under their Unified Republican Government and the Supreme Court.

PLEASE vote. PLEASE help others to vote. Vote as if your lives depend on it – because they do.


(This is a repost from the I Vote For Democrats series published in the lead up to the presidential election in 2012)



  1. We will have to keep fighting these battles until we bury – once and for all – the Republican Party that came to power on the white hot anger at the Civil Rights Act and solidified that power after the election of our first Black president. Let’s start in 2018 and build a permanent Democratic Party majority.

    We Can Do It.

  2. Such hope, such promise. “…close the springs of racial poison.” sigh. They’re still spewing – but we’re still trying.

  3. Thanks for this excellent post, Jan. You know, the older I get, the more I begin to think that Lyndon Johnson was one of our greatest presidents.

    The racism in this country is sickening. In one way things have really changed: no one (at least where I live) gives interracial couples a second glance. You see it in movies, too. This would have been absolutely unheard of when I was growing up in the South of the 1960s. Hail, it was 1965 before I even realized that the slaves weren’t the happy Negroes Margaret Mitchell wrote about in Gone with the Wind. Gods, was I naive! (But no one told me any different until I moved to Washington, DC in 1965.)

    We shall overcome and we shall prevail!

    • Johnson got enmeshed in an ill-advised and unpopular war or his legacy may have been different. I wonder what might have happened if he had run for re-election and governed for 4 more years advancing the policies he put in place – Civil Rights and health care, the rest of the Great Society programs. Possibly the political rise of the racist South would have been put off for a few more years – or maybe it would have made what happened in 2016 happen sooner: the dog whistle set aside for the bullhorn.

      It is important that we remember the history of the good government programs of the 60s to remind ourselves of what is possible when we control Congress and the White House. And what we stand to lose when we don’t vote in every election and allow the haters to whittle away at our rights.

Comments are closed.