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July 2, 1964: Congress Outlaws Discrimination Based on Race, National Origin, Religion, or Gender, Implements ‘Affirmative Action’ Practice

The transformative Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes Congress. The law makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, religion, or gender in voting, public places, the workplace, and schools. Former President John F. Kennedy had argued for new civil rights legislation, saying that previous legislative efforts (see August 29, 1957 and May 6, 1960) did not go far enough. Kennedy waited until 1963 to send his legislation to Congress, and was assassinated before the bill was passed. On June 11, 1963, Kennedy told the public, “The negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day; one-third as much chance of completing college; one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter; and the prospects of earning only half as much.” His successor, Lyndon Johnson, a conservative Southern Democrat, surprised many by pushing the bill instead of falling in line with conservative Southern Democrats who opposed it. Johnson and Senate leaders successfully fought back a filibuster by Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) and 17 other segregationist Democratic senators who tried to derail the bill; it passed the Senate on a 73-24 vote. Some believe that the passage of the bill is one of the major legislative acts that drives many Southern Democrats to leave the party for the increasingly conservative venue of the Republican Party. The word “sex,” to prohibit gender-based discrimination, was added to the legislation at the last minute by Representative Howard W. Smith (D-VA), and some accused Smith of inserting the provision as a means to kill the entire bill. Smith argued that he was supportive of efforts by women’s rights organizations, and inserted the language in a sincere effort to curb discrimination against women. Smith is joined by Representative Martha W. Griffiths (D-MI) in keeping the provision in the bill. Perhaps the most significant provision of the bill is the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charged with implementing the law. The EEOC will use the practice of “affirmative action” to curb discrimination, including mandating hiring of minorities and women to alleviate many employers’ practice of hiring white males almost exclusively, especially for more senior positions. President Johnson will extend his support to “affirmative action,” and is perhaps the first public figure to use the phrase in addressing the public. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 2008; National Archives, 2012; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: Lyndon B. Johnson, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, John F. Kennedy, Martha W. Griffiths, Richard Russell, Jr, Howard W. Smith

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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