Delivering on a Dream: The House and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

An Important Meeting

On July 2, 1963, Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall boarded a plane in Washington, D.C., and travelled to the farming town of Piqua, Ohio, to take part in what would arguably become one of the most consequential political meetings of the 20th century.

Located about 30 miles east of the Indiana border, Piqua was the home of Republican Congressman William Moore McCulloch, a World War II veteran who, after nearly 15 years in the House, still maintained a law office in town, and who was back in his district that week to celebrate the Fourth of July. Since his first election in 1947, Bill McCulloch had become a quiet but powerful force as the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, helping to oversee a variety of issues from the federal court system, to patents, to civil rights. It was that last issue—America’s civil rights policy—that brought Marshall and the full weight of President John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department to southwestern Ohio in the summer of 1963.

Whatever political differences separated Marshall and McCulloch, they shared an increasing urgency to improve and protect the country’s civil liberties. McCulloch was a moderate Republican whose time in Florida as a young man shaped his disgust of racial discrimination. He voted for both the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills, and introduced his own civil rights measure six months before Marshall arrived.1 Marshall was in Piqua on behalf of Kennedy’s administration, which needed the support of congressional Republicans if it was going to break the legislative stranglehold Southern Democrats had placed on nearly every civil rights bill to go before Congress.

William McCulloch of Ohio/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_evnt_cr_cra64_mcculloch.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives William McCulloch of Ohio served as House Judiciary Ranking Member from the 86th through 92nd Congresses (1959–1973).
So, McCulloch and Marshall, sitting in McCulloch’s law office, struck a deal. McCulloch promised to support the administration’s civil rights legislation and convince his fellow Republicans of the need for a “reasonable” bill in the House.2 In return, Marshall promised that the House bill would not get watered down and sacrificed in the Senate just to secure passage; that McCulloch would be able to approve any amendments to the bill; and that Republicans would be credited for their essential role in the passage of the legislation.3 If civil rights legislation in the House had seemed dead on arrival before this meeting, McCulloch’s decision to help craft and shepherd the bill suddenly gave it new life.

While the story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is often told through the lens of the executive branch—the dealings of Kennedy’s administration or the aggressive political operation of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency—a close reading of the events reveals that the large role of the House is often overlooked. Without Members like McCulloch working across the aisle, the bill would have never been possible. And without the careful legislative work done in the Judiciary Committee, the McCulloch–Marshall deal would likely have been for nothing.

This agreement did not occur in a vacuum. Events in the months before the Piqua meeting proved a flashpoint for action on civil rights. The Birmingham campaign organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the spring of 1963 brought images of brutalized young children into homes across the nation. Governor George Wallace refused to enforce desegregation at the University of Alabama and forced President Kennedy to federalize the National Guard in June to protect Black students.

By the opening of the 88th Congress (1963–1965), Members of the House had already begun to react to the civil rights crisis. Within the first six months of the first session, more than 100 civil rights–related bills had been introduced, and by May the House Judiciary Committee began holding hearings on some of these bills. But only when the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Emanuel Celler of New York, introduced the Kennedy administration’s bill H.R. 7152 on June 20—in response to the chaos in Alabama—did the deliberate gears of the national legislature begin to turn in earnest.4

The House Judiciary Bill

The bill, drafted primarily by Justice Department staff, had as its principal provisions: (1) the enforcement of voting rights in federal elections; (2) a public accommodations anti-discrimination provision; (3) the desegregation of public schools; (4) a Community Relations Service to mitigate racial disputes; (5) the extension of the Civil Rights Commission for four years; (6) the prohibition of discrimination in federal assistance programs; and (7) the establishment of a Commission on Equal Opportunity.5

Emanuel Celler of New York/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_evnt_cr_cra64_celler.xml Image courtesy of the House Photography Office Emanuel Celler of New York chaired the House Judiciary Committee for 22 years.
The House referred the bill to the Judiciary Committee, and Chairman Celler assigned it to Subcommittee No. 5.6 Celler also chaired Subcommittee No. 5, giving him almost total control over the measure as it made its way through both levels of the committee. A liberal Democrat from Brooklyn, New York, Celler was committed to advancing civil rights and promised to complete subcommittee hearings and markups by the end of August 1963.7 On June 26, Attorney General Robert Kennedy appeared as the first witness in the opening hearing on the administration bill. In his prepared remarks, Kennedy stated federal intervention was necessary in the South because racial discrimination carried the force of law. “The Federal Government can and should play a part in ending such daily insults to a portion of our citizens,” he told the subcommittee.8

The subcommittee hearings continued throughout July, as scheduled. The witness list ranged from cabinet secretaries, labor leaders, members of the clergy, civil rights leaders, Members of Congress, to private citizens. “We must restore meaning to our words and phrases,” said Representative James Roosevelt of California, a supporter of the public accommodations provision and son of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on July 31. “A ‘public facility’ must be open to the public, not just to white Protestants, preferably of Anglo-Saxon stock. ‘Equality of opportunity’ must mean that each man is judged upon his merits and given the job for which he is qualified or the promotion which he has earned.”9

March on Washington, August 28, 1963/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_evnt_cr_cra64_mowcrowd.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Demonstrators move along Constitution Avenue toward the Lincoln Memorial at March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
As the House met on August 28, a dramatic scene unfolded just outside the Capitol complex. Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph’s call for the March for Jobs and Freedom brought thousands of citizens, Black and white, to the National Mall. Speeches, songs, and high spirits marked the hot August day.10 The peaceful march served to strengthen the case for civil rights legislation in the public sphere and bolstered morale on Capitol Hill, but the effect, if any, on the legislative process was unclear.11

The dealings between subcommittee members on H.R. 7152 were marked by relative comity as summer faded into fall. When the subcommittee convened on October 1, however, that goodwill eroded as communication broke down and the Democratic majority pushed for a stronger bill. Having been kept in the dark about the agreement between McCulloch and Marshall to rally Republican support for the bill, Celler began to fear he was walking into a political trap—that the GOP would side with Southern Democrats to weaken it, all but dooming real legislative progress on civil rights.12 To compensate, the chairman planned to report an aggressive bill out of the subcommittee, believing changes and compromises would be made in the full committee, on the House Floor, and then again when it reached the Senate.13

The bill that Subcommittee No. 5 produced included provisions long sought after by civil rights groups: it expanded voting rights protections to state and local elections; included private businesses in the public accommodations section; and added entirely new titles such as Title III, which authorized the Attorney General to file suit on behalf of individual citizens.14

The Republicans—McCulloch first and foremost—were incensed by what they viewed as Democrats’ decision to swap a moderate bill with a more extreme one. The new version of the bill passed out of Subcommittee No. 5 by voice vote on October 2.

The Judiciary Committee began its markup the following week. On October 15, the Attorney General once again opened the hearings with testimony on behalf of the Kennedy administration. Attempting to salvage the bill, Robert Kennedy asked the full committee to scale back the new language and return to many of the provisions in the original bill.15

By late October 1963, the subcommittee’s version still loomed over the full committee proceedings. President Kennedy hosted meetings with House Leadership to work out a compromise that balanced the original bill and the changes made in subcommittee.16 McCulloch, meanwhile, reached out to Representative John Lindsay of New York, leader of the liberal Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, to hear the suggestions of Lindsay’s bloc.17 

The compromise package that emerged kept the bones of the subcommittee’s version but trimmed many of the provisions. The reworked bill eliminated state and local elections from Title I, for instance, and stripped the broad powers allocated to the Attorney General from Title III. The new measure removed Title V completely, replacing it with a permanent Civil Rights Commission.18 Additionally, a Republican-authored bill creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission became Title VII.19

The committee held its final meeting on H.R. 7152 on October 29. Though it seemed all but impossible months before, the compromise bill passed the full Judiciary Committee, 20 to 14, with bipartisan support. Though neither liberals nor conservatives got everything they wanted, both sides could support the bill. Making it through the Judiciary Committee, however, was only the first of its many hurdles.

The House Rules Committee 

Howard W. Smith of Virginia/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_evnt_cr_smith_hc_2002_017_004.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
House Rules Committee Chairman Howard W. Smith of Virginia routinely used his position to thwart civil rights legislation.
Clearing the House Rules Committee became the next formidable obstacle. The Rules Committee governs the manner in which a bill is considered on the House Floor, and it reserves the right to withhold legislation from the floor altogether. Adding to the already complex situation was the committee’s chairman: Howard W. Smith of Virginia, a former judge and staunch segregationist, who ran the panel with an iron fist and was known to absent himself from Washington on the eve of votes he did not support in his committee. The civil rights bill faced an uncertain future in Judge Smith’s dominion.20

Just as H.R. 7152 took up residence for its indeterminate stay in the Rules Committee, tragedy rocked the nation. President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, and the ascension of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency, threatened to upend the fragile legislative coalition on the Hill and with the White House. Many were skeptical of Johnson’s commitment to strong civil rights legislation.21 As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson secured passage of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts by compromising with Southern Democrats and watering down the bills, the exact scenario McCulloch feared.22

But civil rights proponents underestimated the new President. Soon after assuming office, President Johnson met with Members of Congress and movement leaders to voice support for the civil rights bill.23 On November 27, Johnson announced before a Joint Session of Congress in the House Chamber: “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.” Johnson told the grieving nation, “We have talked enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”24

The first page of the discharge petition Chairman Celler attempted to use to bypass the Rules Committee and bring the bill directly to the floor./tiles/non-collection/o/oh_evnt_cr_cra64_discharge1.xml Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration The first page of the discharge petition Chairman Celler attempted to use to bypass the Rules Committee and bring the bill directly to the floor.
By the beginning of December 1963, the civil rights bill still languished in the Rules Committee. Celler, frustrated with Smith’s stalling, attempted to use a discharge petition to force H.R. 7152 from the chairman’s grasp. A discharge petition would bring a bill to the House floor if a committee had not acted on it after 30 days, but this parliamentary tactic rarely worked. The petition needed signatures from a majority of the Members of the House (218). Celler secured only 178 signatures. But Smith was now the target of a growing number of voices in and out of the House who wanted the bill brought to a vote.25

Sensing a threat to his jurisdiction, the Virginian finally scheduled hearings for January 1964. After nine days of hearings the Committee approved a rule governing debate for H.R. 7152 on January 30, 11 to 4. An “open” rule was proposed, allowing all Members to offer an unlimited number of amendments to any part of the bill during floor debate. Smith expected the flood of amendments to put McCulloch and Celler on the defensive.

House Debate and Decision

This roll call sheet from February 10, 1964, shows how Members at the beginning of the alphabet voted for the civil rights bill./tiles/non-collection/o/oh_evnt_cr_cra64_7152tally.xml Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration This roll call sheet from February 10, 1964, shows how Members at the beginning of the alphabet voted for the civil rights bill.
The House agreed by voice vote to the open rule on January 31, and convened again on Monday, February 3, for an amendment blitz. Using strategic manuals prepared by the Justice Department and House Judiciary counsel defending the constitutionality of each provision in the bill, the two floor managers—McCulloch and Celler—and their deputies, spent the next eight days going title by title through the legislation, beating back amendment after amendment intended to weaken the bill, accepting only those agreed to by both men. One amendment in particular, that added a strong anti-discrimination provision for women, caused great upheaval in the chamber.26 On Saturday, February 8, as the House considered amendments to the equal employment section (Title VII), Chairman Smith proposed inserting “sex” into several sentences of the section.27 Some historians believe that Smith added the amendment as a way to torpedo support for the bill, suspecting that his male colleagues would be hesitant to extend equal rights to women.28 While Celler opposed the amendment as “ill timed” and “ill placed,” several female Members of the House, such as Martha Griffiths of Michigan and Frances P. Bolton of Ohio, rose in support of the measure.  The amendment passed 168 to 133.29

Voting on amendments continued into the following week. On February 10, after almost a week of continuous debate, the House finished considering all 10 original titles, as well as an additional title it added earlier that day. After civil rights proponents defeated a final motion to recommit the legislation to the Judiciary Committee, the House passed H.R. 7152, 290 to 130.30 Remarkably, the Judiciary bill remained largely intact save for such additions as Smith’s “sex” amendment.

Senate Action 

Civil Rights Act newspaper cartoon/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_evnt_cr_cra64_bowling.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress A Chicago Sun-Times cartoon from February 12, 1964, two days after the House passed the Civil Rights Act.
On February 17, the House-passed bill arrived in the Senate, long known as the graveyard of civil rights legislation. Senate leadership decided to bypass the southern-dominated Judiciary Committee and pushed the bill directly to the floor. The Senate agreed to take up the bill in late March, and Southern Democrats launched their anticipated filibuster. While the opponents controlled the floor, the Senators in favor focused on building support for the bill by identifying amendments that would help its passage while not fully dismantling the House bill. The negotiations, in consultation with McCulloch and Celler, extended into the summer. By June, enough changes had been made to bring a sufficient number of moderate Republicans on board to end the filibuster and pass the bill. The substitute measure incorporated changes such as limiting the powers of the Attorney General outlined in Titles II and VII, but more or less preserved the intent of the House bill.31 On June 10, 1964, a motion for cloture was invoked, which required a two-thirds majority to pass. The motion passed 71 to 29, ending the months-long filibuster.32 After rejecting another round of amendments during cloture, the Senate approved the substitute package, 76 to 18, on June 19.

The Civil Rights Act Becomes Law

When the bill returned to the House, it once again faced the Rules Committee. Chairman Smith conceded that final passage was inevitable and offered little resistance. Celler and McCulloch made clear their approval of the revised bill at the June 30 hearing. “The Senate made changes in our handiwork,” Celler said. “These changes are not lethal. They do not do serious violence to the purposes of the bill. They may not be to my personal liking, but I think the country can live with them.”33 McCulloch testified, “I resisted amendments, of course, being mindful of that story that I read in school about the break in the dike.”34 The rule reported out of the committee (H. Res. 789) allowed for one hour of debate and, if passed on the floor, would automatically mean approval of the Senate amendments to H.R. 7152. In essence, voting for the rule meant voting for the Civil Rights Act.

On July 2, 1964, Representative Ray Madden of Indiana brought H. Res. 789 to the House Floor. “Had the ‘skim milk’ civil rights bill enacted in 1957 dealt with this problem as comprehensively, factually and completely as the bill now under consideration, we would have been saved from a lot of embarrassing situations like Little Rock, Birmingham, Jacksonville, and so forth,” Madden said when introducing the rule. “This bill will be effective and amply provides to make all sections of our Constitution a reality to all American citizens.”35

“The country desires no more argument, no more speeches,” Celler told the packed chamber right before passage, “the country demands action now. Action is eloquence.”36 Once Celler outlined the changes made in the Senate, the House passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 289 to 126—one year and 12 days after the Judiciary Chairman introduced H.R. 7152.37

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law./tiles/non-collection/o/oh_evnt_cr_cra1964_lbjlib.xml Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, courtesy of the LBJ Library On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.
Wasting no time, civil rights leaders on and off Capitol Hill assembled at the White House a few hours later for the signing ceremony. In a televised speech, President Johnson asked the nation to embrace the Civil Rights Act, reminding all that the bill “received the bipartisan support of more than two-thirds of the Members of both the House and Senate. An overwhelming majority of Republicans as well as Democrats voted for it.”38 The sweeping civil rights legislation, a product of committed individuals from both parties in Congress, was signed a year to the day after McCulloch’s and Marshall’s fateful meeting in Ohio.


1Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (31 January 1963): 1605; Charles W. Whalen, Jr., and Barbara Whalen, The Longest Debate: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press, 1985): 10.

2Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, Some of It Was Fun: Working with RFK AND LBJ (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008): 121; Todd S. Purdum, “The Republican Who Saved Civil Rights,” 31 March 2014, Politico Magazine (accessed April 2, 2014).

3Robert Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954–1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007): 160; Whalen and Whalen, The Longest Debate: 13.

4Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (20 July 1963): 11252.

5U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee No. 5., Miscellaneous Proposals Regarding the Civil Rights of Persons Within the Jurisdiction of the United States, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1963): 649–660. The eighth title dealt with miscellaneous provisions.

6At the time, Judiciary subcommittees had numbers rather than names. See, U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, A History of the Judiciary Committee, 1813–2006, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2006): 164.

7Celler’s commitment to civil rights can be traced back before the 1957 Civil Rights Act. See, Emanuel Celler, You Never Leave Brooklyn: The Autobiography of Emanuel Celler (New York: The John Day Company, 1953): 69–72.

8Miscellaneous Proposals: 1377.

9Ibid., 2283.

10John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1999): 223–231.

11Whalen and Whalen, The Longest Debate: 28.

12Purdum, “The Republican Who Saved Civil Rights”; Whalen and Whalen, The Longest Debate: 38.

13Whalen and Whalen, The Longest Debate: 39; Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph: 162.

14Whalen and Whalen, The Longest Debate: 38.

15U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, H.R. 7152, As Amended by Subcommittee No. 5., 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1964): 2652–2771.

16Whalen and Whalen, The Longest Debate: 50–53.

17Clay Risen, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014): 129–130.

18Whalen and Whalen, The Longest Debate: 58–59; Todd S. Purdum, “The Republican Who Saved Civil Rights.”

19Katzenbach, Some of It Was Fun: 119, 124–128.

20Todd S. Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2014): 146.

21Lewis with D’Orso, Walking With the Wind: 246; Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph: 121, 134; Katzenbach, Some of It Was Fun: 136.

22Hugh Davis Graham, The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990): 23.

23Katzenbach, Some of It Was Fun: 136; Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph: 168.

24Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (27 November 1963): 22839.

25Robert D. Loevy, Ed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Passage of the Law That Ended Racial Segregation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997): 57–58; Risen, The Bill of the Century: 146–149.

26Katzenbach, Some of It Was Fun: 137; Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: 195–198.

27Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (8 October 1963): 2577–2584; Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–1965 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998): 231–234.

28Bruce J. Dierenfield, Keeper of the Rules: Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987): 194. The motives for Smith’s “sex” amendment are unclear. For further reading, see Clay Risen, The Bill of the Century; Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come; Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph; Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2006): 330–331; Carl M. Brauer, “Women Activists, Southern Conservatives, and the Prohibition of Sex Discrimination in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” The Journal of Southern History 49 (Feb. 1983): 37–56.

29Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (8 February 1963): 2578, 2584.

30House Journal, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 February 1964): 100.

31Risen, The Bill of the Century: 218.

32Whalen and Whalen, The Longest Debate: 200. For further reading on the Senate and the Civil Rights Act, see the Senate Historical Office, “Civil Rights Act at 50,” (accessed 12 June 2014).

33U.S. House Committee on Rules, Hearing on H. Res. 789, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1964): 3.

34Ibid., 26.

35Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 July 1964): 15869.

36Ibid., 15894.

37House Journal, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 July 1964): 444; Congressional Record, House. 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 July 1964): 15897.

38Lyndon B. Johnson, "Radio and Television Remarks Upon Signing the Civil Rights Bill," 2 July 1964, The American Presidency Project (accessed June 20, 2014).