The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a framework for political equality that included the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Montana’s own Mike Mansfield played a critical role in passage of this historic legislation 50 years ago this month.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, or national origin by government agencies that receive federal funds (Title VI) and in all places of public accommodation — including courthouses, parks, restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and hotels. It outlawed employment discrimination and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Fulfilling the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, the Act authorized the Department of Education to assist with school desegregation and permitted the U.S. attorney general to file lawsuits to desegregate schools. The act also prohibited the unequal application of voting requirements, established the Community Relations Services, and gave enhanced authority to the Commission of Civil Rights.
Mansfield, then Senate majority leader, shepherded the Civil Rights Act through the Senate. He filed a procedural motion to prevent the senators opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from referring the Act to the Senate Judiciary Committee to die. Mansfield strategically placed the bill directly on the Senate calendar and on March 9, 1964, moved to take up the measure. Southern senators launched a filibuster against the bill that lasted 60 days, including seven Saturdays. The stalemate ended when Republican Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois gained key votes from his Republican colleagues with a powerful speech calling racial integration “an idea whose time has come.”
On July 2, 1964, the Senate passed the most sweeping civil rights legislation in the nation’s history. President Johnson signed the bill into law that very afternoon. The signing of the bill into law was nationally televised and the president was joined by civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been instrumental in leading the public mobilization efforts in favor of civil rights legislation.
Satellite voting offices
The Act remains one the most momentous pieces of legislation in American history. In Montana, the Voting Rights Act has been used to protect the rights of Indian voters. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division recently supported Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Fort Belknap tribal members in their successful efforts to ensure that Indian voters have access to satellite voting offices on remote Indian reservations.
In the nearly 50 years since its passage, the Voting Rights Act has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. In 2006, after extensive congressional hearings, Sections 4 and 5 of the Act were reauthorized, with unanimous support of the Senate and near-unanimous support of the House of Representatives. However, in 2013, the US Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated the essential provisions of the law that had required all state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to obtain approval from the federal government before making changes in their voting laws or procedures.
Montana has every reason to be proud of Mansfield’s critical role in making the Civil Rights Act a reality. As we move forward, the protection of the fundamental right to vote of every eligible citizen will remain one of the highest priorities of the U.S. Department of Justice.