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September 16, 2014

How the Freedom Riders Paved the Way for the Civil Rights Act, Signed on This Day 50 Years Ago

What does transportation have to do with the landmark  Civil Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law exactly 50 years ago, on July 2, 1964?

Quite a lot.

It was civil rights pioneers such as Bayard Rustin and James Farmer, often putting their lives in jeopardy, who worked to desegregate transportation — especially interstate buses — helping create the momentum that led to the 1964 law.

A crucial section of the law banned discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, or national origin in public accommodations — hotels, restaurants, theaters, stadiums, sports arenas, and gas stations.

But years before, Rustin and others had started challenging the laws and customs that required black passengers to sit in separate sections of buses traveling across state lines.

In 1944, a 27-year-old defense worker named Irene Morgan boarded a Greyhound bus in rural Virginia to return from her mother’s home to her husband in Baltimore. Morgan’s refusal to give up her seat on that bus ultimately lead to a 1946 Supreme Court decision, Morgan v. Virginia, which held that segregating interstate buses violated the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

But that decision wasn’t enforced and was widely ignored.

Rustin went a protest trip through the South in 1947 to challenge racial segregation on interstate buses.

But it was not until the Freedom Rides which began on May 4, 1961, with a trip from Washington to New Orleans that teams of black and white civil rights activists forced the nation to pay attention to segregation on interstate bus lines.

A mob attacked a Greyhound bus with Freedom Riders on it in Anniston, Ala., and outside that town one of the mob set the bus on fire. At other stops Freedom Riders were beaten.

Finally in September of 1961, after a petition filed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that seating aboard interstate buses must be without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin. The ICC also forbade interstate carriers from using racially segregated terminals, but said that its order didn’t apply to independently operated roadside restaurants that served interstate passengers.

The role that Rustin and others played in ending segregation on interstate buses is told in the book “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” by historian Raymond Arsenault.

“Forcing the Kennedy administration to take a belated but ultimately forthright stand on one aspect of racial discrimination, the Rides hastened the day when the federal government would embrace a broader agenda of promoting integrated schools and neighborhoods, equal access to public accommodations, affirmative action in hiring policies, and black voting rights,” Arsenault says in his book.

Congress ultimately decided that the 1961 ICC ruling did not go far enough.

In the summer of 1964, the decisive Senate action to cut off debate on the civil rights bill after a 57-day filibuster came on a vote of 71 to 29, four more votes than were necessary under Senate rules at that time.

Twenty-three Democrats and six Republicans voted “no” on ending debate on the 1964 bill, essentially votes in favor of killing it. They included 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Albert Gore, D- Tenn., the father of former Vice President Al Gore. Goldwater told the Senate the bill would require “the creation of a police state.”

CQ reported in its 1964 Almanac that the filibuster by Southern senators included a 14-hour solo performance by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who said the bill “would impair the civil rights of all Americans. It cannot be justified on any basis — legal, economic, moral or religious.”

In putting his signature on the bill, Johnson said it would ensure that “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.”

Be sure to watch the video we attached to this story. It shows Johnson signing the bill with several pens which he then handed out to Martin Luther King and others at the signing ceremony.

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