Previous versions of The Center’s web suite included special features related to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 based on the Dirksen Collection. We will re-post them as they are updated to modern programming and internet access standards.
Narrative: The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a landmark in legislative attempts to improve the quality of life for African Americans and other minority groups. The story of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is interesting and instructive because it illustrates how an historically important piece of legislation became part of our nation’s heritage. An examination of the Act also provides a way to understand the climate of opinion regarding African American rights, the nature of civil rights activity, the obstacles to political and social change, the role of politics in the way issues are handled, the actions of individual senators and representatives, and the nature of legislative activity in general. The intricate process that makes a bill become law is a combination of all these factors.
Civil Rights Documentation Project
The landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s has attracted considerable scholarly attention, deservedly so. Much of the analysis has centered on the social and cultural conditions that gave birth to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As valuable as the emphasis on the civil rights movement has been, an equally vital chapter has been neglected—the story of the legislative process itself. The Civil Rights Documentation Project provides a fuller accounting of law-making based on published sources and the unique archival resources housed at The Dirksen Congressional Center, including the collection of then-Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-IL), widely credited with securing the passage of the bills.
Rarely do historians have a contemporaneous account of the hour-by-hour, behind-the-scenes negotiations vital to deliver landmark legislation. Stephen Horn provides that insight for a crucial period, mid-February to mid-May 1964, when senators and their aides hammered out the bill that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, often cited as the most important law of the 20th century. Horn served as legislative assistant to Senator Thomas Kuchel (R-CA). Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen (R-IL) had deputized Kuchel, his Republican whip, to chart the legislative strategy for passing the bill. Horn’s 199 pages of exquisitely detailed notes capture the substance and tone of these bipartisan meetings.