The Civil Rights Act: What if JFK had lived?

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, one of the most significant pieces of domestic legislation in the United States since the New Deal of the 1930s. The Act outlawed discrimination based on race, religion or national origin in public places including hotels, restaurants and theaters. It also required equal employment opportunities to be provided by employers and laid the groundwork for passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had sent the civil rights bill to Congress in June of 1963 but was unable to get it passed before his assassination in November of that year. Many have argued since then that the Act only became law because of Johnson’s well-known ability to horse-trade with senators and members of the House of Representatives, and because Congress felt public pressure to pass the bill in Kennedy’s memory. Johnson even said in a speech just five days after the assassination:

"No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long."

But what if Kennedy had lived? Would the Civil Rights Act have languished in Congress, then dominated by Southern Democrats, and only passed if it was gutted and essentially toothless. Or would the gathering steam of events and the growing support of the civil rights movement by the American people have created an atmosphere where public pressure would have forced Congress to act under any circumstances?

Although the civil rights movement had been going on for decades, it only truly became part of the national consciousness in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the new medium of television brought recordings of several pivotal events into American living rooms. Many of the grainy images from that period were essential in swaying white Americans towards supporting the movement.

Among them were the burned buses and beaten riders from the 1961 Freedom Rides. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother, eventually sent several hundred federal marshals to protect the riders as they attempted to de-segregate transportation centers throughout the South. Another crucial moment came in 1962 when James Meredith, an African American Air Force veteran, attempted to register at the University of Mississippi. President Kennedy sent in federal troops and mobilized the National Guard after riots ensued where dozens were injured and two people died.

Some of the most enduring images came during the spring and summer of 1963. The civil rights movement’s leader, the young and television friendly Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed after leading demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala. One of King's young lieutenants, James Bevel, called for African American youths to march in the city’s streets. Television footage broadcast across the nation on May 2 showed Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor setting police dogs and water from high-pressure fire hoses on the demonstrators, many of whom were schoolchildren. A countrywide uproar resulted, and President Kennedy went on national television on June 11 to announce that he was sending a tough new civil rights bill to Congress, a bill which would eventually become the Civil Rights Act.

Later that summer nearly 250,000 people of all races gathered in Washington D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963, for the March on Washington. One of the most memorable moments was King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and televised around the country. On Sept. 15, the images of hatred returned to Birmingham, Alabama when a bomb exploded under the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four young African American girls were killed. The vast national outrage that once again followed clearly indicated that the majority of Americans were now behind the civil rights movement.

It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, whether the Civil Rights Act and its sister legislation, the Voting Rights Act, would have become law if Kennedy had lived. But the forces of history, coupled with the rise of America’s first real television generation, were already beginning to lay the groundwork for immense political and social changes even before the assassination. This tide was much larger than just the politicians in Washington. Although it might have taken longer, it seems likely that had Kennedy lived, the legislation would have eventually passed, perhaps later in Kennedy’s second term as a “living” memorial to his presidency.

What is known is that regardless of the circumstances, once the Civil Rights Act was passed, it had profound implications for future presidential elections. As Johnson reportedly said to his aide Bill Moyers after he signed the law:

"I think we've just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours."

White southerners, particularly men, abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, leading to the elections of Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. The once Democratic South is still solidly the Republican South, with profound implications for the 2012 election. And yet there is no stronger proof of the ultimate success of the Civil Rights Act than the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States.