50 years on

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the US Senate passage of the Civil Rights Act. Arguably the crown jewel of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the act prohibited discrimination based on race, religion or sex at the workplace or in places of public accommodation (this should sound familiar because many of the same provisions were codified into last month’s local non-discrimination ordinance).

The US House had already passed the proposed bill in February of 1964 but it was not until June 19th of that year that the US Senate did the same, 73-27. The wide margin of victory was invaluable for avoiding a filibuster, which before the 1970s could only be ended by a cloture vote of 2/3rds (67 votes). Filibusters had previously been lodged against the 1957 and 1960 proposals, respectively, causing them to be watered down to a point of almost uselessness. Johnson, emboldened with massive public support following the death of his predecessor, sought to pass a comprehensive bill that would truly have come teeth. It also built upon nearly a decade of court rulings by endorsing the complete end of segregation in schools. For what it’s worth, Houston ISD did not finally integrate until 1970.

The way that Texas’ Senators voted is of special note because of just how unique it was. Senator John Tower (R-TX) was the only southern Republican Senator at the time, and he voted a resounding  NO. Texas’ other Senator, Ralph Yarborough, a Democrat, voted YES, being the only southern Senator of either party to do so.

And, of course, it was yet another Texan, President Johnson, who signed the bill into law the next month. While July 2nd will be sure to feature anniversary celebrations, it is today that is the true milestone, for this marked the point of no return whereat the Act looked sure to pass. Unfortunately, there are still far too many hellbent on rescinding the progress made by that law and many others.

As the Wall Street Journal (not anyone’s idea of a liberal ragsheet) reminds us, prominent modern Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), seen as a likely Presidential candidate in 2016, have made comments suggesting he would have voted against this landmark piece of legislation all those many years ago. Of course, at that time, the GOP was in a Civil War, much like it is in now. At that time, it was between the liberals of New England, such as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY), and the conservatives, such as Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ).

While both of New York’s (Republican) Senators voted in favor, Goldwater voted NO. Later that year he was selected as the Republican nominee for President in the 1964 Presidential election, where he was dealt one of the most lopsided defeats for a Republican in American history.

Furthermore, the Civil Rights Act laid the groundwork for its companion law: the Voting Rights Act. The VRA, which passed the next year, outlawed schemes such as literacy tests and poll taxes, in addition to providing some Federal oversight to elections in southern States. While the Supreme Court foolishly struck down that latter portion last year, the former portion still stands; this might be why the ugly “literacy test” has not had a resurgence.

However, the platform of the Texas Republican Party advocates repealing the whole law, not just Section 5 (the part with the Federal oversight). Granted, this madness has not yet spilled over to their candidates. When I got a chance to ask Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for Governor, a few questions last year, my first was if he wished to repeal the entire law, like his party’s platform advocates. Honestly, this came as a surprise to him, and he was taken aback that someone was actually advocating for full repeal. Unsurprisingly, his answer to my question was a strong NO.

But the fact that the ugly provision has now been rubber stamped by all the delegates of the Texas GOP’s convention –twice– tells me that there is still much left to do. While the advocates of segregation were almost exclusively Democrats (Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace), the ones who did not have a political change of heart almost all became Republicans, like Thurmond. However, as my friend Greg at Rhymes with Right always notes, they’re all dead now anyways.

This leaves room for the new generation to come in, unadulterated by bigotry. I truly hope that spirit continues into the future.

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