“Those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public,” US president Lyndon B. Johnson said as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law 53 years ago today.
The hard-fought act outlawed segregation in public places and businesses based on race, religion, or origin, banned discrimination in hiring, outlawed literacy tests and other barriers to voting, and created the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. It said, in part:
All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.
Originally proposed by president John F. Kennedy six months before he was assassinated, it took months to go through Congress because most Southern politicians were staunchly opposed. In the end, Republicans voted more strongly for the bill, with 82% of GOP senators approving versus just 69% of Democrats. Even during the speech signing the act, Johnson appeared to still be trying to build support for it, saying:
It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others.
It does not give special treatment to any citizen.
It does say the only limit to a man’s hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability.
Right after signing the act, president Johnson met with civil rights leaders in the White House, where he asked them not to demonstrate when the act was tested, but to rely on the courts to protect their rights instead. Johnson “promised the full support of the Justice Department in protecting the act,” the Library of Congress notes.
The Trump administration appears to be testing Johnson’s promise. Under attorney general Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice has veered in the other direction instead, eroding rights for immigrants, pushing stronger sentencing that disproportionately affects minorities, and hiring people with no history of protecting civil rights into management jobs in that important division.