The Civil Rights Act and its path through Philadelphia

On June 21, 1963, two days after John F. Kennedy proposed the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, his brother and attorney general, Robert, came to Philadelphia for a speech at Independence Hall commemorating the 175th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution.

Kennedy quoted Woodrow Wilson’s maxim that the Constitution is no “mere lawyer’s document,” but a “vehicle of life,” whose “spirit is always the spirit of the age.” The attorney general said such sentiment had special meaning “at a time when the inadequate phrase ‘Civil Rights’ has come to reflect an urgent nationwide struggle for equality by the ten and a half percent of our people whose skin is not white.”

“The time is long past when any sensible American could tolerate the denial of free voting rights to all races, or the existence of ‘White Only’ signs on public facilities,” he added. “Even by the narrowest interpretation, these things are unconstitutional.” Then he asked, “Must we now wait, as intelligent, modern Americans in a changing society, must we now wait for the Supreme Court to spell out each new particularity of civil rights for us? Whatever color we are, let us hope not.”

Exactly 50 years ago this week – just nine months after Kennedy’s speech – the United States Senate was tied in knots trying to resolve the very question he had posed. The Kennedy administration’s bill – now inherited by Lyndon Johnson – had aroused fierce opposition around the country, especially in the Senate, where a determined band of segregationist Southern Democrats were beginning what would become the longest legislative filibuster in the capital’s history. The outcome of that debate was by no means assured as the Senate took up the bill.

Robert Kennedy’s question lay at the heart of whether the nation would live up to the promise of the founding ideal articulated in the City of Brotherly Love – that “all men are created equal” – and whether the United States would, in Benjamin Franklin’s famous phrase, manage to keep the republic that the framers had bequeathed it.

John Kennedy had campaigned in 1960 on a strong civil rights platform, but in office he had equivocated and temporized at every turn. Only after the devastating demonstrations in Birmingham in spring 1963 – when pictures of police turning dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors (many of them children) outraged the world – did the president at last propose a bill. He knew full well that the effort might jeopardize the rest of his pending legislative program – including a major tax cut – which depended on support from the Southern barons.

In late October 1963, the day after the House Judiciary Committee passed the civil rights bill by the barest margin, Kennedy made a political trip to Philadelphia, where his motorcade passed through sparse crowds in the racially tense wards of South Philadelphia in “one of the poorest receptions Mr. Kennedy has had in a major city since he became president,” as The New York Times’ Tom Wicker put it.

Barely a month later, Kennedy’s assassination had galvanized public support for the bill, Johnson vowed to pass it at all costs and a grand and now almost unimaginable bi-partisan coalition worked to shepherd it to passage, first in the House and then in the Senate. The bill stands as perhaps the single most important law of the 20th century, and though it was debated and passed in Washington, it had its roots and meaning here in the cradle of the Constitution, where the spirit is always “the spirit of the age.”

Vanity Fair and Politico correspondent Todd S. Purdum will appear at the National Constitution Center at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday in a public program in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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