This Day in Legal History: July 2nd

On July 2nd, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act during a live television broadcast from the White House East Room.

The Act was the brainchild of President John F. Kennedy, who made civil rights a central platform in his campaign for the presidency. Kennedy was unable to see his vision to fruition; the bill was still being debated in Congress when he was assassinated. Once Johnson was in office, 18 Southern democrats in the Senate, led by Johnson’s friend Richard B. Russell, had filibustered the bill. But a great enough majority was mustered to overcome the filibuster, and the Act was passed 73 to 27.

The Civil Rights Act that eventually passed was not as sweeping as the original vision of the legislation, and the powers of enforcement were initially weak. Some African American leaders were disappointed that the legislation did not protect against police brutality or discrimination in private businesses. However, further additions to the Act, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, did build upon the foundation that the Civil Rights Act laid for the protection of the rights of women and minorities.

President Johnson used a total of 75 pens to sign the bill, one of which he presented to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King later said that the pen was “one of his most cherished possessions.”

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