In the years immediately preceding passage of the Civil Rights Act, protests spread throughout the South. Through King's leadership, those who wanted to test segregation laws and customs did so by practicing nonviolent civil disobedience. "Freedom riders," whites and blacks committed to civil rights, rode buses into the South to engage in sit-ins at lunch counters and marches through the streets to protest segregation. When these peaceful demonstrators were met with increasing violence -- beaten, drenched and driven back with powerful fire hoses -- the pictures that filled evening newscasts throughout the nation helped create the public momentum that led Congress to act.
By 1963, more than a thousand major protests had taken place in more than 200 American cities, spreading from the South, where segregation and unequal treatment were enshrined in law, to the North, where discrimination was widely practiced if not given legal justification. Public opinion polls of the era showed increasing support for integrating schools and neighborhoods and outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, with the overwhelming majority of northern whites, 75 percent, favoring integrated public schools.
President John F. Kennedy proposed a new civil rights law in a nationally televised speech in June of 1963. He, of course, did not live to see legislation passed, because he was assassinated less than six months later. But Congress managed, with great debate and political wrangling, to pass legislation. On Feb. 10, 1964, the House passed its version of the legislation, with a far higher proportion of Republicans voting in favor than Democrats: 138-34 Republicans to 152-96 Democrats.
The Senate followed suit only after a filibuster, which allowed unlimited debate and prevented the bill from being voted on for two months and paralyzed all other activity in the Senate, was finally ended by a vote to end debate. Again, the so-called cloture vote, which required two-thirds of senators to vote to cut off debate and bring the bill to a vote, had stronger support among Republicans than Democrats.
We are a better country today for the efforts of those who sought to outlaw discrimination. It is worth remembering their struggles as we honor our nation's founding in celebrations this week.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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