Volunteers made their way under Bob Moses, a New York schoolteacher who began campaigning in Mississippi in 1961. Just as they got started, on June 21, three proxies, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
No one knew where they had gone, but although some white people have tried to argue that they chose to simply disappear to raise awareness of their cause, no one in control of reality during this racially charged time believed that they had gotten somewhere good.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, who as Senate Majority Leader had pushed the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress, was determined to pass the stricter Civil Rights Act that his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy, had advocated in 1963. Indeed, just five days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson had told Congress, “No memorial or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
White Southern men passionately defended their right to rule over their black neighbors through state law, but Johnson, though a Texas native, wanted none of that. “We’ve talked about equality in this country long enough. We’ve spoken to each other for over a hundred years. It is now time to write the next chapter and write it in the books of the law.”
The House of Representatives had been considering a civil rights bill since June 1963, but had gone on hibernation without it being removed from the Rules Committee, where the chairman, staunch segregationist Howard Smith (D-VA), bottled it. During the recess, so many congressmen heard from citizens upset that the bill hadn’t passed that Smith backed down and dropped it from committee. The House of Representatives passed the bill on February 10 and sent it to the Senate, where everyone knew the South’s segregationists were not going to give up easily.
And they didn’t. The Senate began debating the bill on March 30, and Southern Democrats launched a filibuster. In the days before Senate rules changed, filibusters required senators to actually speak to talk a bill to death, so they formed squads of senators who rested and spoke in teams. Southern Bloc leader Richard Russell (D-GA) said: “We will oppose to the bitter end any measure or movement intended to bring about social equality and racial mixing and fusion in our states.”
Meanwhile, Northern Democrats stood their ground in favor of the bill. At stake were the votes of those Republicans who liked the idea of civil rights in principle but did not want to increase the power of the government whose rules of procedure they opposed.
Throughout the spring, blacks and their white neighbors demonstrated their support for civil rights by integrating formerly separate spaces, while opponents of the bill attacked them. When blacks and whites jumped into a whites-only swimming pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Fla. on June 18, hotel owner James Brock poured acid into the pool. While the water diluted the acid enough not to injure the swimmers, police arrested them. News teams reported on the incident. Seeing a white man pour acid into a swimming pool to drive blacks away was the final straw.
The next day, Republican Everett Dirksen (R-IL) managed to deliver enough Republican votes to Senate Minority Leader Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT) to break the filibuster. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who said “I am adamant against discrimination or segregation on the basis of race, color, or creed or on any other basis,” voted against ending the filibuster, saying he believed it was “a serious one.” Threat to the very essence of our basic system of government, which is that of a constitutional republic in which 50 sovereign states have reserved for themselves and the people those powers not expressly vested in the central or federal government.”
The Senate passed the bill on June 19 and sent its version back to the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, anger grew over the three missing proxies, and Johnson used that anger to pressure the House of Representatives to pass the bill.
It did. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2.
Just before he wrote his name, Johnson addressed the American people on television “to speak to you about what this law means to every American.”
Well aware of the bill’s timeline, he remarked: “188 years ago this week, a small group of brave men began a long struggle for freedom. They pledged their lives, wealth, and sacred honor not only to found a nation, but to forge an ideal of liberty—not just for political independence, but for personal liberty; not only to remove foreign rule, but to establish the rule of justice in the affairs of men.”
This was a triumph, but “our country’s founders knew that liberty would be secure only as each generation struggled to renew and expand its meaning…. Americans of every race and color have died fighting to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of expanding opportunity. Now our generation of Americans is called to continue the endless search for justice within our own borders.”
Johnson celebrated that the bill received bipartisan support from more than two-thirds of lawmakers in Congress and that it enjoyed the support of “the vast majority of the American people.”
“The purpose of the law is simple. It doesn’t limit an American’s freedom as long as they respect the rights of others. There is no special treatment for any citizen…. It means that … those who are equal before God should now be equal in the voting booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that serve the public.”
“Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions – divisions that have lasted too long. Its purpose is national, not regional. Its purpose is to promote a more enduring commitment to liberty, a more enduring pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.”
“We will achieve these goals because most Americans are law-abiding citizens who want to do the right thing,” he said. “My fellow citizens, we have now entered a testing time. We must not fail.”
It was indeed a testing time. When the American people came together to urge Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, their opponents saw a call to arms. Two weeks after Johnson signed the law into law, just over three weeks after Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner went missing and are still missing, Goldwater walked the stage at the Republican National Convention to accept the nomination.
On July 16, he told delegates that “extremism in defense of freedom is not a vice. And… moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue.” The votes of the South Carolina delegates were the ones that carried him to the lead for the nomination.
On August 4th, the US had a striking example of what some Americans considered “extremism in defense of liberty” when the missing bodies were found buried in a dirt levee near Philadelphia, Mississippi, and it turned out that they were members of the Ku Klux Klan, at least one of whom was a police officer, had murdered them.
Voters in the 1964 election continued to support Johnson’s vision of the world and rejected Goldwater in a landslide. And those voters may have been wrongly hoping that their will had triumphed when Goldwater won only his own state of Arizona and five Deep South states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
They failed to see that a shift was underway that would transform first the Republican Party and then the nation itself.