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The Civil Rights Act at 50: A Conversation with Rep. John Conyers

John Conyers and MLK
John Conyers and MLK
Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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July 2, 2014

Listening to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) speak is like having a real life history lesson. Mr. Conyers is the second-longest serving member of Congress, having been in office for nearly 50 years. After participating in the March on Washington in 1963, he entered Congress in the middle of the fight for civil rights and, as a leading civil rights activist himself, has played a key role in passing, protecting and expanding the our nation’s most vital civil rights laws.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark law made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and gender. It began to provide equal opportunities in areas like employment, voting, public accommodations, and education. Many know it better as the law that integrated lunch counters and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to protect American workers from discriminatory workplace practices.

I had the honor of speaking to Mr. Conyers about this groundbreaking law. We spoke about what it was like running for office while Congress was debating the bill, the atmosphere in Washington immediately after its passage, what this law means for our country, and what is left to do to fulfill its promise.

The interview has been edited for space. The views expressed in this interview are Rep. Conyers’ own.

Let’s go back to the early days of the Civil Rights Act. You were campaigning for your first term in Congress while the bill was being debated. What do you remember about that time?

Many people don’t remember how violent and dangerous it was in the South at that time. This bill was the culmination of a long list of incidents going on all over America, particularly in the South. The general public was exhausted. The passage of the act was successful because many people, if not most people in the country, were tired of and embarrassed by the violence that accompanied resistance to ending segregation. That message got to a lot of the members in Congress.

I know that some in Congress thought they could undermine the bill’s chances of passage if they added protections for gender, but it passed anyway.

Yes, gender equality and equal treatment of the LGBT community were very remote in those days. But they were [both] recognized in the breadth of the Civil Rights Act.

How did President Lyndon Johnson convince Members who had not been active in civil rights to support this bill?

I think the loss of John Kennedy emboldened Lyndon Johnson to say, “Now the time has come.” Everyone was watching [him], because he hadn’t been that conspicuously in support of civil rights and voting protections as a senator. But he helped persuade a number of senators to calm down and get it over with in as dignified a way as possible. He did a good job in that regard.

Did the presence of the Civil Rights Act change the dynamic in Congress after its enactment?

There were two schools of thought in American politics during that time. There were those who were not willing to throw in the towel and agree that we were coming into a new era. The Southern senators—who were then Democrats—were going to resist to the bitter end bringing about any kind of social equality, and they meant it. One senator filibustered for 14 hours before he finally gave in.

This [division] wasn’t over because we passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These were very turbulent times, and even Washington, D.C. itself was still in the process of fully desegregating. It was very clear to a lot of people that this was something that had to change and it couldn’t go on any longer. But it also meant that there were a large number of people that weren’t for the change.

Has the Civil Rights Act fulfilled its promise 50 years later?

It’s become clear that this struggle isn’t over. Much of the violence is gone, which provoked and embarrassed so many people, but we’re still trying to make sure that we aren’t losing rights. Traditional civil rights groups [like] the NAACP [and] the ACLU are making sure we continue this and we don’t let the Act be treated as a bit of unsavory history in that past.

The voting rights battle, the battle for gender equality, all of these fights find their basis in the Civil Rights Act. And there’s been a few setbacks in recent years, but it’s clear that the president and his administration are relentless in fighting for these rights.

Turning to next year, we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. You’re one of the biggest champions for updating and modernizing the law after one of its most powerful provisions was struck down by the Supreme Court last year. What was it like being in Congress when that passed originally in 1965?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the first large measure that I was able to participate in as a member of Congress in my career. At that time, there was a lot of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. We were working together pretty well. It was a huge vote, and we now are trying to keep it in repair so that we can continue forward with the progress.

Many of us in Congress were stunned by the United State Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder, when they knocked out the Voting Rights Act. But the battle isn’t over, and we’re still trying to make sure that everybody under the Civil Rights Act has the ability to vote and make it as easy as possible to vote so that we get more people out.

As one our strongest voices in Congress for civil rights, what advice do you have for this generation in working to protect and expand our rights?

It’s like moving forward with all progressive issues. What we have to do is make sure that people understand that the battle isn’t over. We’ve had some incredible circumstances here. It means that we have to look and learn and mak[e] people understand that this isn’t over by a long shot. It’s a little bit more sophisticated now, but the struggle continues.

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