Race and Party Politics, Part I – The 1964 Civil Rights Act

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Vladimir Lenin

America as a whole has a two party political system, with each party typically getting the support of about half the nation’s voters, but things are different on college campuses. University professors are an extremely partisan bunch; they vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, and do all they can to influence their students to vote the same way.  The word “diversity” may be a popular catchword on campus, but there is very little diversity in evidence when it comes to political opinion.

History professors, and the textbooks they write, sometimes go to extremes to make their own party look good, and the hated Republican Party look bad. One of the more egregious examples of this partisan bias is the way mainstream history textbooks misrepresent the roles of the respective parties in the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

What Actually Happened

There is no question that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an over-due solution to a shameful problem. Black Americans suffered unconscionable oppression in the South in the 1950’s and 60’s. All the Southern states had “Jim Crow” laws; laws that forced businesses to keep their customers segregated by race. Many Southern states forced discrimination in hiring practices; forbidding hospitals, for example, to hire black doctors or nurses. Police departments often refused to investigate crimes committed by whites against blacks.

In 1963 President Kennedy urged Congress to pass a civil rights law to protect the constitutional rights that Southern state governments were violating. Republicans in both House and Senate overwhelmingly supported the bill, but many Democrats opposed it.

In the Senate a determined group of Democrats conducted a 57 day filibuster in an effort to kill the bill. At one point Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who had been an “Exalted Cyclops” of the Ku Klux Klan, stood on the Senate floor and talked non-stop for over 14 hours as part of the effort to wear down the bill’s supporters. J. William Fulbright, a very liberal Democrat from Arkansas, and eventual mentor to an up-and-coming politician named Bill Clinton, participated in the filibuster. So did Al Gore Sr., a leading Democrat and the father of the party’s 2000 Presidential nominee.

Filibusters are not allowed in the House of Representatives, but a racist Democrat named Howard W. Smith used his position as chairman of the House Rules Committee to keep the House version of the bill from coming to the floor for debate. The House was able to debate the bill only after a majority of Representatives signed a “discharge petition” to force the matter.

As a previous Other Half of History column points out, business interests and political conservatives had always opposed the Jim Crow laws. When the 1964 Act was being debated, Republican politicians from around the nation could take a stand for equal rights without having to fear much of a backlash from their constituents and supporters.

Southern Democrats, on the other hand, depended on the support of large numbers of racist white voters who demanded segregation. The party fought for segregation as a way to keep the support of racist voters.

The House and Senate voting on that 1964 bill showed the nation pretty clearly which party stood where. The Republicans overwhelmingly opposed segregation, while Democrats were divided into two factions; one side opposing segregation, and one supporting it; with the greatest passion demonstrated by the pro-segregation side.

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During the 1970’s, after the federal courts had made it clear that the states really would be forced to abide by the ’64 Civil Rights Act, the Democratic Party began to lose its grip on the South. Southern voters had always tended to agree with the Republicans on military and foreign policy issues, as well as business and religious issues. Once the segregation issue was off the table, Southern voters began to have little use for the Democrats.

From the 1860’s through the early 1970’s Dixie was solidly Democrat; today the opposite is true.

And race relations and voting patterns are not the only things that started to change around 1970; the end of the Jim Crow Era meant the end of economic backwardness in the South. Economic growth in the eleven Southern states has out-paced that of the Northern states from the 1970’s to the present day. In 1970 only twenty-nine companies headquartered in the Southern states were prosperous enough to be listed on Fortune Magazine’s “Fortune 500” list. By 1990 eighty-nine Southern companies were on the list. The 2010 list offers a handy breakdown by state, which shows that 139 Fortune 500 companies call Dixie home today.

History with a Partisan Spin

College professors and other modern day Democrats don’t like to admit that their party was the party of segregation. The way most mainstream history books tell the story, it was conservatives and Republicans who were eager to deny black Americans their constitutional rights in 1964.

Dr. Eric Foner’s textbook,1 for example, does not tell the reader that House and Senate Republicans voted for the bill by huge majorities while Democrats ended up voting for it by much smaller majorities. Nor does he mention a single word about the Democrats who filibustered for 57 days to block it.

Foner’s book names only one Senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act: Barry Goldwater, a Republican.2 The book spins the political fallout of the bill to make it sound like Republican politicians were the darlings of racist white voters: “Johnson knew that many whites opposed the new law. After signing it, he turned to an aide and remarked, ‘I think we delivered the South to the Republican Party.’”

Most history professors apply the same dishonest spin. I review seven of the most widely used freshman history textbooks in preparing these Other Half of History columns, and only one of them mentions that Democrats filibustered to block the Civil Rights Act.3 Another book alludes vaguely to a “Southern filibuster in the Senate,” and the other five books don’t mention the filibuster at all.

One widely used textbook gives President Johnson and his fellow Democrats all the credit for ending segregation: “Johnson and the Democratic Party were clearly not ready to share power with African-American activists, but they were ready to end legalized segregation. In July, with Johnson’s prodding, Congress adopted the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places.”4


Students (and parents) who pay today’s astronomical tuition rates for a college education have the right to expect an education, not a partisan indoctrination. Whatever the relative merits of the two political parties may be, college faculties should not subvert accuracy and truth to build support for one party at the expense of the other.

Blatantly biased portrayals of the parties’ roles in the civil rights debate are just one example of how tendentious professors are short-changing their students.

Al Fuller

1Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (Volume II, 2006 edition)
2ibid., p. 857
3Rorabaugh, Critchlow, & Baker; America’s Promise; consistently the least biased of the seven textbooks
4Boydston, Cullather, Lewis, McGerr, & Oakes; Making a Nation (Volume II, 2004 edition); p. 676

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15 thoughts on “Race and Party Politics, Part I – The 1964 Civil Rights Act

  • Civil Rights Act
    The legislation had been proposed by President John F. Kennedy on June 11 1963, but opposed by filibuster in the Senate.
    President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed the bill forward, which in its final form was passed in the U.S. Congress by a Senate vote of 73-27 and House vote of 289-126 (70%-30%). The Act was signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964, at the White House.
    Vast Majority of Northern Congressman voted for the bill, and vast majority of Southern Congressman voted against the bill.

    Totals are in “Yea–Nay” format:

    The original House version: 290–130 (69–31%)
    Cloture in the Senate: 71–29 (71–29%)
    The Senate version: 73–27 (73–27%)
    The Senate version, as voted on by the House: 289–126 (70–30%)

    By party
    The original House version:
    Democratic Party: 152–96 (61–39%)
    Republican Party: 138–34 (80–20%)
    Cloture in the Senate:[23]

    Democratic Party: 44–23 (66–34%)
    Republican Party: 27–6 (82–18%)

    The Senate version:
    Democratic Party: 46–21 (69–31%)
    Republican Party: 27–6 (82–18%)

    The Senate version, voted on by the House:
    Democratic Party: 153–91 (63–37%)
    Republican Party: 136–35 (80–20%)

    By party and region

    The original House version:
    Southern Democrats: 7 – 87 (7–93%)
    Southern Republicans: 0–10 (0–100%)
    Northern Democrats: 145–9 (94–6%)
    Northern Republicans: 138–24 (85–15%)

    The Senate version:
    Southern Democrats: 1–20 (5–95%) (only Ralph Yarborough of Texas voted in favor)
    Southern Republicans: 0–1 (0–100%) (John Tower of Texas)
    Northern Democrats: 45–1 (98–2%) (only Robert Byrd of West Virginia voted against)
    Northern Republicans: 27–5 (84–16%)

  • The Southern strategy is also a myth. The fact is that the Outer South was becoming more Republican even before the CRA, and the Deep South lagged far behind. If you look at the maps of Eisenhower’s 1952 and 1956 landslides and JFK’s razor-thin victory in 1960, you will see that the GOP carried a number of Southern states in all three of those elections, including Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia. Eisenhower carried Texas in both his elections, as well as Louisiana and Kentucky in his reelection.

    As for Nixon in 1968: primary sources refute the Southern strategy as well. George Wallace ran for president as an independent on a segregationist platform that year, and carried five Southern states. Theodore White wrote in his 1968 edition of The Making of the President that it was Wallace, not Nixon, who won the segregationist vote, and that Nixon immediately conceded this to him. In his inaugural address, Nixon praised the federal government’s efforts at civil rights legislation and urged for more to be done. As president, he accelerated the desegregation of Southern schools, raised the federal civil rights enforcement budget, and instituted the Revised Philadelphia Plan to combat institutional discrimination in hiring.

    But what, do you ask, would have happened if George Wallace hadn’t run in 1968? I suspect that the segregationist vote would have probably gone to the Democrats anyway, and I will explain why. George Wallace’s support base was not just made up of white racists, but also blue-collar, unionized workers, most of whom were staunch New Deal Democrats. The idea that working class union voters would have voted for Nixon, or any other Republican, in 1968 is utterly laughable.

  • Mike, you are wrong. The segregationists, by and large, did not join the GOP. Robert Byrd, a former KKK member who participated in the anti-CRA filibuster, was still a Democrat when he died in 2010. Fritz Hollings, who first hoisted the Confederate flag over South Carolina’s capitol, opposed integration of lunch counters as the state’s governor, and as a Senator voted against Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, was still a Democrat in 2004. John Stennis, who also participated in the filibuster, retired from the Senate in 1988, still a Democrat and never becoming a Republican.

    There are several reasons why this Freaky Friday “party switch” narrative is false. First, most Southern segregationists were strong supporters of the New Deal and the Great Society, and disdained the Northeastern elite they perceived as controlling the GOP. They may have been “conservatives” on race, but they were decidedly liberal on economics. Second, Republicans have always been a somewhat conservative party on economic issues. The Whig Party, which preceded Republicans as the main opposition to the Democrats, endorsed the “American school” of economics, which was based heavily on laissez-faire capitalism and believed that the federal government had little to no role in promoting social welfare. After the Republican party formed, it absorbed a number of northern Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln, and these politicians likewise endorsed American school economics. Third, the Republican party in its early years drew large support from religious, conservative, moralistic northerners, just as it draws strong support from religious conservatives today. Fourth and lastly, Democrats have never strayed far from their racist past. They embrace the principle of nullification, used by the Southern states to resist federal restrictions on slavery, to defy federal immigration law and create “sanctuary cities” and “sanctuary states” for illegal aliens. They also deny that an unborn child can be a legal person, just as Chief Justice Roger Taney (also a Democrat) said in the Dred Scott decision that blacks could not legally be considered citizens.

  • Mike, mike, mike…
    There is evidence of what Al has listed. Where’s yours? You just “think” they switched. This doesn’t change the party of the great president Lincoln (R) who freed slaves or the actual arguments documented between Johnson and Dr. King. Arguments that document Johnson was forced by the republican party.

  • Richard – great research. However it gets even worse. If you look at the majority of resignations, from the 88th and 89th Congresses, due to appointments. Almost all of them were due to democratic congressmen being appointed as federal judges. So if you can’t beat them, don’t join them – change the rules. Pathetic

  • Why is this not debated and discussed today? Some of us may remember portions of this but not enough of us remember all of this.

  • Mike, your comments are ill-informed and incorrect. Out of more than 1500 openly, clearly racist Democrat Party congressmen, senators, governors, and state legislators from before and after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, only 14 can be shown to have switched parties. Read the book or see the documentary, “Hillary’s America, The Secret History Of The Democratic Party” to learn the true facts concerning your liberal democrat party canard. It’s documentation cannot be honestly assailed.

  • Mike,

    The only Southern Democrat I’m aware of that switched to the Republican Party a relatively short time after the Civil Rights Act was passed was Strom Thurmond. The overwhelming number of racists remained with the
    Democrat Party. Also, remember Lyndon Johnson’s motive for supporting the Civil Rights Act—- “I’ll have those “N word” voting Democratic for 200 years.”

  • Your argument falls short from the beginning. Colleges and universities are largely Independent, relying on their education and reasoning, not party affiliation, to tell them how to vote. Whereas in the 50s and 60s, the republicans stood on the side of human rights, sadly that is not the case today, which is why so many young people despise them.

  • Mike, you complain that I didn’t write enough about what happened after 1964 with the racist white Democrats I mentioned in this column. Here, per your request, is some more detail.

    Robert Byrd remained a liberal Democrat throughout his long career in the Senate. On four different occasions the Democrats, when in control of the Senate, made Byrd the President Pro-tem; which among other things put him third in the line of succession to the President of the United States.

    J. William Fulbright, who had been Joseph McCarthy’s biggest nemesis in the Senate in the 1950’s, remained a liberal Democrat through his long career, too. In 1966, just two years after he helped filibuster to block the Civil Rights Act, he became the mentor of an up-and-coming young politician named Bill Clinton, who would later be nominated by the Dems for President.

    Al Gore Sr remained a liberal Democrat throughout his political career as well. He too was the mentor of a younger Democrat whom the party eventually nominated for President.

    Howard W. Smith remained a Democrat for what was left of his political career, losing his re-election bid in 1966.

    Be careful what you ask for.

  • I thought you were on the right track, but you left out what happened to the Southern Democrats after President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The racist segment of the party you referred to, switched to the Republican party, and over time took control, and moved it to the right of conservatism.

    If you are going to try and tell the truth, you have to tell the whole truth.

  • Somehow, some way, we need to ensure that future history books tell the WHOLE story, especially of black history. It is a shame that blacks have had most of this history defrauded with liberal lies.
    This is critical.

  • This did help me!!!

    I loved the information on how the politics were the same and different through the years.

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