Lyndon Johnson identified civil rights as a key component of the Great Society. Johnson’s programs attacking rural and urban poverty, increasing access to health care, and protecting the environment would be severely weakened without guaranteeing the right to vote. The Great Society produced two landmark pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination in public settings (bars, hotels, theaters, etc.). It also prohibited states and local governments from denying access to public facilities based on race. Finally, it banned racial, religious, or sexual discrimination by employers. The Voting Rights Act forbade literacy tests and other kinds of voter qualifications and made certain areas of the country subject to Federal election monitoring based on their history of discrimination.
As with the other elements of Johnson’s Great Society, Congress did not greet the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act with open arms. Voting on the bills, however, did not neatly divide into Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. Southern Democrats—members of Johnson’s own party—represented the primary opposition to civil rights legislation. They shrouded their racism in a veneer of states’ rights, arguing that the Federal government had no right to interfere in the internal politics of individual states. Others, like Republican senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater, opposed the legislation on constitutional grounds. This battle over civil rights was the opening act in the transformation of the Republican Party in the 1960s.
President Johnson believed that civil rights legislation was essential to the continuing success of the United States. In his address justifying the need for the Voting Rights Act, Johnson told Congress that “There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans.” He explained that the United States should continue to try and live up to the ideals of the Founding generation outlined in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He told the gathered legislators that
Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.
To apply any other test–to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth–is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.
By appealing to the Founders, Johnson attempted to cast his actions as those of an American patriot upholding American ideals.
Opposition to the civil rights stressed that it was not the government’s role to interfere in the workings of individual states to ensure civil rights. Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona, voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He complained that several parts of the bill, including the employment and public access provisions would “require for their effective execution the creation of a police state.” Goldwater won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964, but lost in an overwhelming landslide to Johnson. Apart from his home state of Arizona, Goldwater only captured the deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. This marked the first time that a Republican presidential candidate had won the deep South since Reconstruction. In the coming years, Republicans dominate presidential politics in the South.
Southern Democratic senators, like Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell, opposed civil rights legislation on similar grounds, but as a shield to cover up their racism. Thurmond, who had once engaged in a 24-hour long filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, railed against the new act of 1964. He said,
This so-called Civil Rights Proposals, which the President has sent to Capitol Hill for enactment into law, are unconstitutional, unnecessary unwise and extend beyond the realm of reason. This is the worst civil-rights package ever presented to the Congress and is reminiscent of the Reconstruction proposals and actions of the radical Republican Congress.
During a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia outlined the racial logic behind his opposition. He declared that “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states.”
Russell remained a Democrat and an ardent supporter of segregation until his retirement in 1971. Thurmond, however, bolted the Democratic Party in 1964 following the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Thurmond’s defection embodies the general shift in the political landscape in the South that saw whites abandon the Democratic Party because of its support for equal rights. They transferred their loyalties to the Republican Party and the GOP embraced a new “southern strategy” by appealing to southern racism. The Great Society and opposition to civil rights was the opening act in the GOP’s transformation in the 1960s.