seek compromises that would dilute the provisions of the bill in order to secure passage, the president soon proved his dedication to equal rights.
In mid-February, the civil rights bill passed the House and landed in the Senate, where a sizable southern minority prepared to use parliamentary techniques to stall passage. Georgia’s Richard Russell marshaled his colleagues, encouraging a filibuster to stall discussion of the bill: “We have lost a skirmish in the battle for constitutional government…. Now we begin to fight the war.” Alabama’s senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman, joined the fray. Hill served as the “captain” of one of three “teams” of southern senators organizing the “talkathon” that prevented the bill from coming to a vote. He organized a rotating roster of speakers, even giving eight lengthy speeches himself. Sparkman gave a number of speeches as well, though he also served as a “back-up” man, asking long, detailed questions that gave the speakers a chance for a brief rest.
The bill’s supporters refused to relinquish hope. Lyndon Johnson personally worked to maintain a coalition of pro–civil rights Democrats and Republicans “in the thick of things” as proponents sought to outmaneuver the filibuster. Activists remained positive as well. Roy Wilkins criticized southerners for attempts to “maim” the bill and promised that “the Negro drive for freedom from humiliation and inequality will not cease,” regardless of the eventual fate of the legislation. Birmingham’s Fred Shuttlesworth praised Kennedy and Johnson for their work on behalf of civil rights, but he also noted the importance of the “foot soldiers,” whose sacrifices inspired the legislation: “But for Birmingham, the Civil Rights Bill would not be before Congress today.” On Wednesday, June 10, the Senate voted for cloture, silencing the southern opposition and allowing the bill to come to the floor for a vote. The resulting passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was inevitable. In response to the cloture vote, the Montgomery Advertiser, an opponent of the legislation, assumed its eventual success while remaining
defiant: “Even if you believe that national morality demanded this bill in behalf of Negroes, you must nevertheless concede that it embodies a vast surrender of personal freedom.” Republican senator Everett Dirksen, the author of the
compromises that allowed the bill to pass, was more optimistic, noting, “Its time has come.”
On July 2, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, challenging Americans
to “go to work to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.” The act banned discrimination based on race in most public accommodations, discrimination in employment and union membership, and provided a judicial mechanism for noncompliance. Activists immediately planned to test implementation. In Birmingham, Fred Shuttlesworth promised, “The [Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights] will begin vigorous testing of the impending new law,” and provided a series of behavioral rules for those interested in taking part: “The order of the day is to be quiet, be calm, be dignified, be determined, be Christian and be good Americans.”
Southern resistance was fairly muted. Richard Russell conceded, “As long as it is there, it must be obeyed.” Around the region, many businesses quietly complied with the new law. As Shuttlesworth reported, activists peacefully entered a number of cafes and theaters “which previously did not have the benefit of Negro trade.” Both the Birmingham Hotel Association and Birmingham Motel Association promised to desegregate, and the city’s mayor, Albert Boutwell, praised Birmingham’s “ability to meet a critical situation
with maturity and objectivity.”
Some resistance remained, however, as a handful of southern businessmen refused to desegregate quietly. In Selma, two unnamed restaurants turned black customers away, and in Atlanta, Lester Maddox, the owner of the Pickrick, a popular fried chicken restaurant, refused to serve African Americans. Maddox’s “stand” proved prescient, as the businessmen translated his popularity into a
successful run for the governorship. Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, also used public opposition to the bill to win political support in his campaign for president, promising to drop out of the race only if Johnson would repeal the act. Leaders like Wallace and Maddox demonstrated that while the government might force southern businesses to desegregate, legislative actions alone could not change entrenched behaviors. Only continued activism would ensure that African Americans enjoyed equal treatment in all aspects of southern life. Fred Shuttlesworth noted the need for continued struggle: “Our rejoicing must be tempered…with the understanding of the hardships, the sufferings, the bombings, and even the deaths of many of our people in many places. Such knowledge compels us to accept as our sacred duty to continue and increase the tempo of our Non-Violent struggle until ALL Negroes are completely free and
accepted into American society.”