Today, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is celebrated across the United States and its historical virtue extolled in textbooks. Fifty years ago, however, as it made its way through Congress, the landmark legislation was intensely polarizing. Debate on the bill in the Senate lasted 114 days, longer than any other in the chamber's history, and included a 14-hour filibuster by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.). President Lyndon B. Johnson even acknowledged the bill's potential political consequences, telling Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen that "I know the risks are great and we might lose the South, but those sorts of states may be lost anyway." The following quotes come from the lead-up, the debate and the passage of the bill.
April 16, 1963
—Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
"For years now I have heard the word 'wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"
June 11, 1963
—President John F. Kennedy, civil rights address to the nation from the Oval Office
"This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to 10% of the population that you can't have that right; that your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go in the street and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that."
June 13, 1963
—Robert C. Weaver, head of President Kennedy's Housing and Home Finance Agency and the first black Cabinet member
"Most middle-class white Americans frequently ask, 'Why do Negroes push so? They have made phenomenal progress in 100 years of freedom, so why don't their leaders do something about the crime rate and illegitimacy?' To them I would reply that when Negroes press for full equality now, they are behaving as all other Americans would under similar circumstances.... To the Negro, as an American, involuntary segregation is degrading, inconvenient and costly. It is degrading because it is a tangible and constant reminder of the theory upon which it is based: biological racial inferiority. It is inconvenient because it means long trips to work, exclusion from certain cultural and recreational facilities, lack of access to restaurants and hotels conveniently located, and, frequently, relegation to grossly inferior accommodations.... But the principal disadvantage of involuntary segregation is its costliness. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in education and housing. By any and all criteria, separate schools are generally inferior schools in which the cultural deprivations of the descendants of slaves are perpetuated."
June 19, 1963
—President Kennedy in a special message to Congress
"Enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 at this session of the Congress — however long it may take and however troublesome it may be — is imperative.... I ask you to look into your hearts — not in search of charity, for the Negro neither wants nor needs condescension — but for the one plain, proud and priceless quality that unites us all as Americans: a sense of justice."
Nov. 27, 1963
—President Lyndon B. Johnson, days after President Kennedy was assassinated, in his first address to a joint session of Congress
"No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights bill for which he fought so long."
March 30, 1964
—Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) during a filibuster
"We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our [Southern] states."
April 3, 1964
—Malcolm X, speaking at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland
"Lyndon B. Johnson is the head of the Democratic Party. If he's for civil rights, let him go into the Senate next week and declare himself. Let him go in there right now and declare himself. Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party. Let him go in there right now and take a moral stand — right now, not later. Tell him, don't wait until election time. If he waits too long, brothers and sisters, he will be responsible for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of. In 1964, it's the ballot or the bullet."
June 10, 1964
—Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen speaking in support of ending debate on the Civil Rights Act and moving toward a vote
"There is another reason why we dare not temporize with the issue which is before us. It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. Its time has come."
June 18, 1964
—Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), explaining his opposition to the Civil Rights Act
"I am unalterably opposed to discrimination of any sort, and I believe that though the problem is fundamentally one of the heart, some law can help — but not law that embodies features like these, provisions which fly in the face of the Constitution and which require for their effective execution the creation of a police state.... I shall vote 'no' on this bill."
June 18, 1964
—Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) in a speech on the Senate floor. (Three months after the Civil Rights Act was passed, Thurmond switched his party affiliation to Republican to express his disapproval for the Democrats' role in the law's passage.)
"Passage of this bill will visit the heel of oppression on all the people, vitiate their constitutional shield against tyranny, and materially hasten the destruction of the best design for self-government yet devised by the minds of men."
July 2, 1964
—President Johnson, upon signing the Civil Rights Act
"This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country. So tonight I urge every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional man, every working man, every housewife — I urge every American — to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people, and to bring peace to our land.
"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."