A witness to history in the making

I awoke June 19 in my Cambridge apartment to finish packing and to fly to Washington for a friend’s wedding. But my focus was really on Capitol Hill, where the U.S. Senate was in the last stages of debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It appeared that the roll call vote would take place that day and I wanted to be there.

I was still in shock from John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November. His election and vision had electrified and inspired my generation. Kennedy had sent the civil-rights legislation, the basis of the Senate Bill, to Congress on June 19, 1963. It included a strong provision giving black Americans equal access to all public accommodations; provided for the cut-off of any federal aid programs in the South that discriminated; and gave the U.S. attorney general the power to sue Southern state governments that operated segregated schools.

Five days after Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to a joint session of Congress: “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights,” Johnson said. “It is time now to write the next chapter — and to write it in the books of law.” He made the passage of the bill a tribute to the memory of JFK.

As I packed, I recalled images of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent demonstrations against Mississippi’s rigid segregation and Birmingham Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor violent response — the public outrage against which gave Kennedy the support for this bill.

I flashbacked to 1952 images from a family train trip to New Orleans of shabbily dressed, barefoot blacks outside their shacks on a cold December morning.

Water fountains marked “Whites” and “Colored,” segregated toilet facilities, African Americans at the back of the trolley. Memories from December 1960 when 3,000 of us accompanied our integrated Brockton High School football team to Miami to play Miami Senior High in the Orange Bowl.

Miami-Dade had a segregated school system, and we were concerned about the treatment of our team would receive at the Deauville Hotel, in restaurants and on the playing field.

President Johnson used all the powers of the presidency and years of Senate experience and relationships to wage the battle for this Civil Rights Act. The bill went to the House floor in early 1964, and after a 10-day debate, with all attempts at weakening amendments beaten, it passed Feb. 10, then went to the Senate.

Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield of Montana moved on Feb. 26 to place the civil-rights bill directly on the Senate calendar, bypassing the Judiciary Committee; by March 30 it was on the floor, and the Southern filibuster was under way. In mid-May, Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois had arrived at the current amended bill.

On June 10, 1964, for the first time in its history, the U.S. Senate voted cloture on a civil-rights bill and broke the filibuster 71-29.

This was the bill on the Senate floor waiting action as I flew to D.C.

As soon as I checked in at the Mayflower Hotel, I and another wedding guest cabbed to the Capitol and made our way to the Senate’s visitor gallery, only to find it packed. On our elevator back down I struck up a conversation with Sen. John J. Sparkman, of Alabama, former Democratic vice presidential candidate and filibuster backer.

I solicited his help.

He delivered us to the chief of the Senate Gallery with the request that he “find seats for these two pretty young women” — which he did.

The clerk began the roll call. Our excitement mounted as each senator’s name was called until there were the necessary 51 “yea” votes and then a final tally of 73 yeas to 27 nays. The gallery erupted into cheers and applause.

It was the pivotal moment of what is still considered one of the most significant legislative achievements in U.S. history. The House of Representatives quickly agreed to the Senate amendments, and on July 2, 1964, before an audience of more than 100 senators, representatives, cabinet members and civil-rights leaders, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act into law.

Looking back these 50 years, in an era of partisanship and gridlock, I still remember the excitement of that moment when our legislative leaders worked across the aisle to do what was right for America.

Jo Anne Bander is a Coral Gables-based writer and consultant.